Every day Liz at The Writing Reader - https://goo.gl/09yqCt - puts up a writing prompt with ideas for Fiction, Journaling, Poetry, etc. I use them periodically. Some fit into what I’m writing at the time—I wrote a short story, Freedom’s Just a Word, using three of the prompts as major plot points. That story was published as "What Goes Around.." in the anthology, A World Unimagined. (LeftHand Publishers, 2018) Other prompts just struck my fancy. Still others result in a piece of prose like this blog post. This is a fusion of old and new writing based on:
Prompt #1881 – Dying at Home
Journaling: Write about an experience you had with someone who was dying.
Owen Edward Downing was born on October 23, 1919. He would have been 97-years old yesterday, but he wasn’t. He went home to heaven on September 21, 2002.
My dad was a do-er. If you needed help doing just about anything, he was you're your go-to guy. Yard work, plumbing, painting, driving a bus, if it was doing, my dad did it.
He and my mom bought a brand new Chevrolet Kingswood 9-passenger station wagon in 1960. Back in those days, seatbelts weren’t even optional—they existed only in racecars. On more than a few Sunday mornings, we packed that station wagon with 15-16 kids picked up for Sunday School.
We used to drive back to Indiana where most of my mom and dad’s family lived. We’d drive back at least every other year because, apparently, Route 66 only allowed cars to travel from West to East and then back to the West. VERY few of our relatives made the drive to California from Indiana—East to West, although once the Interstate Highway system was up and running, we had a few more Hoosiers come to The Golden State.
After we bought the Kingswood, my dad built a toolbox that spanned the width of the station wagon. He wired a speaker from the AM radio in the dashboard into one end. Most of the time, the toolbox contained tools. On trips to Indiana, it served as the “demilitarized zone” between the folded down middle seat and the folded down rear-facing back seat. That barrier made the long hours on the road much less confrontational between my sister and me.
Throughout his life, my dad donated well over 30 gallons of blood. He had to stop donating when he turned 80. While there was an age restriction, he’d been granted an exception because of his physical health. The problem at 80 was a form of leukemia that manifests itself in males of his age group.
Before, during, and for some time after WWII, my dad cleaned the 5"/38 caliber guns on his ships with benzene—now a known carcinogen. In addition, nearly all insulation on the ships was asbestos. Dozens of other now-banned chemicals were in common use during most of my dad’s active duty.
I don’t know if any of Dad’s military activities contributed to his leukemia or not. It doesn’t matter either way. No one knew of the long-term effects of those chemicals at the time he used them. My dad just lived his life.
What ultimately caused my dad to go to his doctor was the combination of what the blood bank told him and his fatigue. He started a regimen of blood transfusions. Over time, the transfusions were required at shorter and shorter intervals.
When his primary care doctor suggested transfusing every other week, I suspected my dad was nearing the end of his life
During the latter weeks of the transfusion regimen, I went with my dad, mom, and sister to Dad’s oncology visits. I knew more biology than any of them, and I wanted to be able to ask a question or answer a question once we got home based on what I’d heard.
What happened at Dad’s last visit to the oncologist is worthy of reporting. It occurred within a week of the suggestion to go to twice-monthly transfusions.
Dad’s oncologist was a retired Navy doctor. As such, he always called my dad Chief, although by this time Dad had been retired for 40 years.
“Chief, you’ve got to make a decision.”
My dad nodded.
“We can put you in the hospital and give you chemotherapy treatments. If we do that, you’ll die in the hospital from the treatments.”
My mom inhaled sharply. My sister looked shocked. My dad leaned forward, ready for the next option.
“Or, you can go home, not take any treatments, and die there, in a place you know and with people you love and who love you around you.”
While the reactions of my mom and sister remained pretty much the same, Dad’s entire body relaxed. He sat back. I can’t say for certain, but I remember a visible cloud of peace settling over him. There was only one choice in his mind.
The last time my dad left his house was Labor Day, 2002. He, my mom, sister, and brother-in-law were there for grilled burgers. Dad started strong, but he tired quickly and had to be helped to the car.
For a week, my mom and my sister took care of Dad in his home. When it was obvious that there would be no rallying at this point, they contacted Dad’s primary care physician. The next Monday, hospice came to my parents’ house.
During the initial visit, hospice explained that Dad would not want to eat.
“It’s not that he doesn’t like your food, Mrs. Downing,” the hospice worker said. “And, he’s not being mean. He’s not going to eat because he’s not hungry. As his body begins to shut down, it doesn’t need food.”
Dad nodded as he reached out and grasped my mom’s hand.
Mom didn’t react to the news. Mom’s cooking is legendary among family and friends. People often “stopped by” around meal times for that reason. She’d already tried to get him to eat more.
I knew Mom had heard what was said, she didn’t pull her hand away.
“Probably within a week, Owen won’t feel like getting up out of bed, either,” the hospice worker continued. “Don’t worry about that either. We’ll be by to check on him. We’ll put a mat on the bed in case there’s an accident. Once he starts staying in bed, there aren’t many of those issues.”
By the time the hospice worker left, everyone was more relaxed. The mood of the living room softened. It felt peaceful.
Two days later, a hospital bed was delivered to the house. The day after that, Dad had the hospice worker help him onto the bed for the last time.
It was weird visiting the house after that. Dad was still “there,” but not as a participant. He became an observer, responding only when we went to him, and then only in a minimal way.
On September 21, a young woman whose family had unofficially adopted our family as their own asked if she could come and sing a song to Dad. Mom said, “Of course.”
She was singing the third verse of “Thank You (for giving to the Lord)” when he became agitated.
The singing stopped. The “adopted” family gathered their things and left.
Not more than half an hour later, with the nuclear family gathered around him praying, my dad gave a deep sigh. That was followed by what has been dubbed the “death rattle.” I thought the “death rattle” was a myth. It isn’t.
I checked for a pulse, on Dad’s wrist.
I checked again on his carotid artery, but I knew he had died.
The lack of pulse confirmed my suspicion.
My dad was a Golden Glove and Navy boxing champion. His body was muscular his whole life—more than mine, even when I played football.
Owen "Demon" Downing after winning the Asiatic Fleet Heavyweight title. He beat a Marine, which made the victory sweeter in his eyes.
That night, I distinctly remember how gaunt his arm looked but how heavy it was. Odd memory.
I said, “He’s gone,” or something like that.
I don’t remember exactly what we did after that. I don’t think I cried then. If my mom, sister, and wife didn’t, I’d be surprised.
Someone called hospice. I suspect it was my brother-in-law.
They contacted the Medical Examiner.
An ambulance arrived.
One of the attendants was a young woman whose family had been part of our church.
That made the situation less surreal.
I think my mom spent that night at my sister’s home.
My final memory is the empty hospital bed in the living room.
I hope your take away from this blog is a sense of comfort or completeness. Do I miss my dad? You bet! But,
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 (New International Version)
I choose to believe that I’ll see Dad again. We’ll greet each other in heaven someday.
Next Almanac: Coaching memories continued – Track and Field - Track Events
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