Friday, August 19, 2011

Enduring Love

Funny how time has a way of warping when you’re facing tragedy, one day just blends into another until they all become one big blur.  A thousand clich├ęs come to mind when I think of time – All in due time, time waits for no one, time is all we have, making time, the times; they are a changing, time heals all wounds…Time - It is truly the only priceless commodity.
Life’s most precious memories are not usually measured in days or weeks – but moments in time.  What settles in our souls are the snapshots of life.  We remember the moment we held a precious newborn in our arms, the moment we said, “I do”, the moment we saw a child off to college, the moment we looked in the eyes of someone we loved for a lifetime and truly saw them for the first time. Those memories are what make up the tapestry of our lives. 
 It is just such a moment that has rested in my heart when I think of my parents.  I want to share this moment as a way of celebrating the joy of their love for one another. 
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see both my parents recently.  Living in Florida, I was not able to visit them as often as I would have liked.  Yet, I knew my mom was very sick and I felt that I should see her sooner rather than later.  I had no idea that this visit would indeed be the last time I would see both my parents alive.  When I walked into my mom’s ICU unit I was not prepared for what I saw.  She was gaunt and frail; too weak to speak.  Yet I knew she was happy to see me because her eyes crinkled and she tried to smile through her oxygen mask.  She wanted to say something, but it was impossible to hear her feeble whisper.  She finally gave up trying and slipped into a restless sleep.  I stayed by her side stroking her hair and praying for her to regain her strength.  Seeing her like this strengthened my resolve to somehow bring my father to see her. 
I was keenly aware that she may indeed be dying and my father had not seen her in over two months.  They had been separated from each other for such a long time because he was not able to travel due to an infection that he acquired in the nursing home where he was living after his stroke.  My mother had visited him everyday until she had to leave the state of NC and return to our family in NJ.  She was looking for a place to relocate my dad when she became suddenly ill and had to undergo emergency surgery.  He was still in NC when she went into the hospital.  It took our family a few weeks to transfer my dad to a facility just down the road from my mom’s hospital.  Yet, he still had not seen her.  
During my visit to NJ, I was determined to facilitate reuniting my dad with my mother – even if it meant bringing him to the ICU.  This was not an easy decision to make.  My brother, sisters and I knew it would be a painful trip for my dad because of his severe arthritis.  His nursing home was unable to provide transportation meaning that we would have to transport him ourselves.  
I was second guessing the wisdom of it all as it took four people to bend and maneuver my dad into my sister’s small car.  He cried out in pain several times.  Every time he cried out, I asked him if he still wanted to make the trip and every time he gave me “the look”.  “The look” is hard to explain.  It is one of those “just do it” kind of looks – sort of bothered and impatient.  It is the same kind of look he would get on his face Sunday mornings when he waited at the bottom of the staircase jingling his keys for my mom to get moving for church.  He never yelled or raised his voice.  He just gave you “the look”.  I was getting “the look” now.  So, we managed to get him settled in the car and I got behind the wheel.  I drove the short distance to the hospital; my dad crying out in obvious pain every time I turned a corner or hit a bump.  

I kept nervously glancing his way all the while saying, “You’re going to see mom soon!”  

I would get “the look” in response.  I finally just shut up and drove.  My sister sat in the back seat lost in her own thoughts.  The quiet ride was punctuated with my dad’s cries.  I was a bundle of nerves by the time we arrived at the hospital.
It took two burly security guards to get my dad out of the car.  I said, “Dad we’re going to see mom!”  

He looked at me with that “I know already!!” exasperation in his eyes.  He motioned to me to get on with things and move the wheelchair.  I quietly wheeled him through the hospital halls as my mind raced on ahead to my mother’s room where my two sisters were awaiting our arrival.  I knew by now that they had told my mom of our plans.  I imagined the expectation and anxiety my mother must be feeling.  She and my father had not seen each other for so long.  I cannot recall a time when they were separated for even two days during their entire 42 years of marriage.  Now, my father was going to see my mother lying prostrate in a hospital bed, unable to talk and hooked up to all kinds of machines.  I knew that she would be fretting about my dad seeing her in such a state.  Yet, she too was very clear when we casually asked her if she would like to see dad.  Her eyes lit up and she clearly shook her head yes.  This was what I was picturing in my mind’s eye as we finally neared the ICU unit and my sisters gathered around my dad preparing him for what lay ahead.  He quickly waved all of us off and motioned for me to move his wheelchair.  
It wasn’t until we actually crossed the threshold of that room that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt we had indeed made the right decision.  In that moment I saw my parents - not as the two people who raised me - but as two people whose love transcended all earthly constraints and connected them on a level far beyond the physical realm. It is true that the eyes are the window to one’s soul.  As soon as they gazed into each other’s eyes, I knew that their souls connected; they had no need for words.  
There are neither pictures to capture nor words to describe the raw emotion of those last moments they spent together.  I slowly wheeled my dad to my mom’s bedside and watched my father’s arthritic hand ever so gently stroke my mother’s fragile arm.  Her eyes were aglow with love and his face changed in an instant from tortured to tender.  Neither could speak- my dad from his stroke, my mother from weakness.  It didn’t matter.  They were like two dancers whose rhythm is so in tune there’s no need for music.  They were united again; two hearts so uniquely and passionately joined they truly beat as one.  I felt somewhere deep in my own heart that this might be the last time they saw each other.  I know now that it was God’s hand that quietly nudged me to make the trip when I did and nudged me again to bring my parents together.
Up until the day I crossed that threshold with the wheelchair I hadn’t cried. Perhaps I was trying to be strong for my family.  Perhaps I was afraid of the emotions welling up inside.  Whatever the reason, I kept my pain and sadness at bay.  Yet, witnessing this vulnerability in my parents suddenly pushed me over the edge.  My tough exterior crumbled and I felt my sobs pulling me in like a great ocean current.  The waves of emotion came thundering into my heart.  All at once, I felt my resolve crumble and I knew I was falling to pieces.  
I didn’t want my parents to see me crumble before their eyes.  Besides, I wanted to leave them to their private moments together so I quickly stepped outside of the antiseptic hospital room and into the comforting arms of an ICU nurse.  Perhaps it was desperation that made me cling to this kindhearted nurse, but cling I did.  I clung to her like she was a lifeboat in a stormy sea and I cried and cried.  My racking sobs shook me into depths of despair.  She held me and just let me cry.  I guess ICU nurses are used to such things.  I just let it all out.  I sobbed out of sadness and loss – for I knew my mother would soon be gone.  I already sensed the void in my heart.  I knew these two people were saying their goodbyes.  I knew they would meet again, but probably not on this earth.  I knew this might well be the last time I would see them together because I did not expect my mom to hold on much longer.
Yet, I also cried tears of joy.  Joy because they were able to connect one last time and joy because I knew the love they so passionately shared for each other was also shared with their children.  As is evident in the lives of their six children, their sixteen grandchildren and one great grandchild; these two people were loved dearly. And, in the end, they taught me that love is the greatest gift we can give one another – love and time.  Theirs’ is a great love story; a love story where the phrase “to death do us part” held no meaning because they chose to be joined in death as they were in life.  
It was a shock when I received a call not more than a week after my visit.  The call came at 3:00 in the morning.  It was my brother.  I braced myself for the news that I was expecting.  I was already hearing his words before he said them, “Mom died.”  However, that is not what he said between his sobs.  Instead, he said, “Dad’s in the hospital.”  He explained that my father had aspirated his food in the nursing home and they had to transfer him to an ICU room in the very same unit caring for my mom.  
Later that day, while I was at work, I received the dreaded call from my sister.  I don’t know why I went to work.  I knew in my heart that I would be getting a call.  I should have been on a plane heading north but there really wasn’t much I could do now.  My brother said they had dad heavily sedated so he was currently unresponsive and my mother was essentially the same.  Going to work at least got my mind off things.
I was standing at the podium in front of my class doing my best to appear normal and get through the reading lesson without breaking down into a blubbering idiot.  Then, my assistant principal appeared at the door.  When our eyes met, I knew.  I knew it was something terrible.  She motioned for me to come with her.  Zombie-like I made my way on leaden feet to her office.  She handed me the phone and quietly stepped out of the office closing the door behind her.  
My sister was crying so hard I could barely make out her words.  All I heard over and over again was, “It’s dad!”  “It’s dad!”  

Dad?  What about dad?  Her words weren't registering.  
“What do you mean, 'it’s dad'?”  
“He’s on a respirator.” My sister managed to say between sobs.  “They want to turn it off!  We need to know if you want to be here before…before they turn off the machine.”  
I don’t know what happened next.  It seemed like time stood still while I held the phone in my hand and images of my father floated through my head.  Christmas when he gave me my first Fender Duo-Sonic electric guitar…he and I playing chess…the day I rode my unicycle without holding onto the walls and he stood clapping in the hall…the bike rides we took…dad.  
“Dad!” I moaned.  

Soon my husband and my principal appeared and they ushered my out the door to the car.  I was in a fog.  I don’t remember saying goodbye to my sister.  I remember saying something about not waiting for me…I had already said my goodbyes.   
Later that day, as I made plane reservations, the machine was turned off and my dad quietly went to be with the Lord.  My mother, who was a few rooms away, was told about my father.  Within 48 hours she slipped peacefully into a coma and stopped breathing on her own.  Rarely does one spouse follow so quickly after another.  Yet, my parents were different in so many respects.  Their connection was so strong that I truly believe they were each other’s lifelines.  One could not and would not want to go on without the other.  

I keep thinking about that day in the hospital room when they were reunited.  It was their last dance.  They were great dancers.  They danced together through life and into death.  As my brother-in-law so aptly put it, dad was impatiently jingling his keys in heaven saying, “Get up here already, the music is playing!”