Many of you that receive this newsletter are friends and family and already know that my Dad passed away on December 18, 2019, at University Hospital in Saskatoon, SK. I had just moved to Blanca, Spain (from Madrid after completing my schooling there) when he fell ill in November. He went into the hospital thinking it was pneumonia, but soon after, we found out that it was Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. Idiopathic means they don’t know what the cause is and Pulmonary Fibrosis means continual scarring of the lungs, of which there is no cure.
We still had hope though that he would have a few years (depending on what stage it was) where he could come home aided by an oxygen tank, but that was not to be so. After spending a month with him in the hospital in limbo but with much hope and positivity, the doctors said that there wasn’t more that they could do and he would not be going home. So he asked to be taken off the oxygen, which he hadn’t been able to be without since he was admitted on the 12th of November.
We were moved from Observation into a private room where we got to just eat pie and drink coffee (which he had not been allowed to because it irritated his throat), while we listened to his favourite country songs and he giggled with the nurses. I couldn’t believe that this was it.
He seemed to have no qualms at all about his decision and no fear of the unknown. He told me not to feel sorry for him because it was going to be beautiful where he was going. Tronn would be there to greet him, amongst many others. I told him I was a little jealous.
At around 1030PM, he brushed his teeth (stating he knew it seemed a little silly, but he just couldn't go to bed not having cleaned his teeth!) before the nurses helped him get into bed and he instructed me to turn the temperature down (because he likes it cool when he sleeps). I knew that once they gave him enough of the sedative, he would fall asleep and never wake up again. He was very chatty but kept nodding off and then I would give him a little shake to wake up. I knew I couldn’t keep doing this. I had to let him rest. And finally, I let him go.
To love and let go, love and let go, love and let go...it's the single most important thing we can learn in this lifetime.
– Rachel Brathen
For the next several hours, I sat on the bed with him or laid by his bedside. My beautiful cousin, Karen, was not far away throughout the night, either in the family room (with her husband Darren, who also came for moral support) or sitting on the bed with us listening to Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristoffersen, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson...all the greats that reminded us both of our farmer Dads and growing up just down the road from one another.
At 630AM, I said she should go home and get some sleep, as it seemed that Dad was sticking around for much longer than the nurses had said he would. I told him to stay as long as he could. I was enjoying listening to how peaceful his breathing finally sounded. But only an hour after that, his breath faded away and his heart stopped beating. Later, my cousin Steven reminded me that it was our Grandma's birthday that day (my Dad's mother, whose death had devastated my Dad). What timing..and such a gift for him to join her on this day.
How do the geese know when to fly to the sun? Who tells them the seasons? How do we, humans, know when it is time to move on? As with the migrant birds, so surely with us, there is a voice within, if only we would listen to it, that tells us so certainly when to go forth into the unknown.
– Elizabeth Kübler-Ross
He looked peaceful, almost joyous. Not lifeless. Just like he was having a delicious nap, sans the toothpick he always had in his mouth.
What was I supposed to do now? I couldn’t just leave him there. Alone. And I couldn’t leave the hospital. Alone. When my Mom passed away, my brother and I were there and we left the hospital room together. When my brother died, my Dad and I were there, and we left the hospital together. I hadn’t wanted to ask Karen to come back to the hospital since she just left, but after much pacing back and forth within the room, a voice said, "It is ok to ask for help right now." So I sent Karen a message that Dad had passed and I didn't have to say another word before she was on her way back.
The funeral home nearest to Birch Hills (my Dad's home) in Prince Albert (2 hours away from Saskatoon) was coming to get him and I didn’t want his body to lay unaccompanied.
Karen arrived back to the hospital without having a wink of sleep and her brother Murray and his wife Ramona drove in from Birch Hills. All 3 of them stayed with me until the funeral home arrived to get Dad a few hours later.
Murray was like another big brother when I was really young who lived just down the road from us (and like another son to my Dad), so when he came into the room and swallowed me up in a bear hug and held my hand while I held on to Dad's, it felt like he was a conduit for the fatherly love and comfort I know my Dad would have wanted to give me himself if he could have. Sitting with his body then felt more like a family visit and it allowed me to finally leave him when the funeral home arrived, after being glued to his side for so many weeks. What would I have done without these three to support me at this moment? Well, I am glad that I don't ever have to know.
The following days were blurry. Trying to make important decisions like what my Dad would wear and which coffin to choose were just too weighty and difficult. Again, Murray and Ramona, who knew my Dad well, helped me to find these answers. He got the same coffin that he and I chose for my brother and wore a casual plaid shirt and jeans, no cowboy boots, cause he always took those off when he wanted to rest.
My cousin Susan was also there for me every step of the way. I stayed with her and her husband Dan at their farm where I grew up (Dad had just sold it to their family months earlier), the first couple of nights I was back in Birch Hills. They were hugely supportive and wonderful to be with but I knew that I needed to be alone to plan his celebration of life. So I moved into my Dad’s house in town, which used to be my grandparents, where he had just moved to after he sold the farm. His little sticky note reminders were all over the house and everything was the way he had left it when he went to the hospital. It was so hard to be there, but with time, it felt like exactly where I was supposed to be and where I felt closest to him.
I had his iPod playing constantly in the background, trying to find just the right song for his slideshow. I didn't want it to be sad but rather a testament to the great life that he had created for himself, so I chose "Walk of Life" by Dire Straits.
I am now back in Blanca (Spain) where I've stepped into another phase in the grieving process. Much of my time here is spent solo, which allows the reality of my new normal without him to sink in. When I was in Canada, I had many people around or near me most of the time which was a nice diversion from my grief. But now I have no option but to let it have its way with me.
None of us are immune to death and we are all are touched by it at some point in some way, eventually. I know from enough experience now that grief is something I know I cannot push away or control. When it comes, I surrender to its grip, and I let it take me down, way down into the deepest, darkest sadness. Because I know it is impossible to outrun.
The pain is there; when we close one door on it, it knocks to come in somewhere else.
- Irvin Yalom
Last year, I said goodbye to my beloved cat, Pusskin, who I loved and adored for 14 years, I stayed in my apartment and cried for 3 days, feeling like the tears would never stop. I felt her very near to me. In a dream, she looked at me very sternly as if to say, "Pay attention to what is about to happen". It was then that my feet started tingling and the sensation went all the way up to my heart, where it woke me from my slumber. I knew right away what it meant. That she was now a part of me. Just as everyone I've lost is still a part of me. My biology. My biography.
The cords that cannot be cut, are those of love, even with death. I know my Dad's spirit still lives through me, in my heart and in my mind, along with my Mom and my brother.
People die. Love does not.
I really was not ready for you to leave this early. But if there is anything that I have learned in this life so far, it’s that one is never ready to say farewell to those we hold closest to our hearts.
Still, I thought that if anyone could evade death, it was you. That if you had decided to, and just put your mind to it, like anything else in your life, you could stay. Even with a lung disease, you seemed so vital and strong. I believed nothing could take you down.
So when I heard those words from you last week, that it was time for you to go, neither my brain nor my heart could compute it, despite knowing throughout this journey that there was a very real possibility you may not get to leave the hospital.
All of these last weeks, we lived in limbo, not really knowing whether you would get better or not. I can’t imagine how hard it was for you, after living your whole life on your own terms, calling your own shots and being fully independent, to then be tethered to a wall in order to be able to breathe, unable to go any further than the length that the oxygen tube allowed. You weren’t able to eat anything without coughing or talk for more than a few minutes at a time without becoming winded. You maintained an optimistic outlook through it all, did everything you could do to try and heal and hoped that you would be able to leave there eventually, even if it meant carrying an oxygen tank wherever you went. More than ever, you saw so clearly what a gift life was. To live. To love and to be loved.
You told me no matter what happened, you were going to be a winner. If you got to live, you would do it to the fullest and if you didn’t, well, then you knew there was a beautiful mystery awaiting you on the other side.
Maybe you weren’t consciously aware, but I look back now and think on some level, you knew your time here was coming to an end, well before you went into the hospital.
When I was home this past September, you told me the combination to your safe and had me open it when you weren’t there to make sure I was able to do it, without any instruction from you.
When I looked inside, I found a “To Do” list that you made for yourself a few months after Tronn had passed away. One of the points said, “If I knew I only had one year to live, what would I do?” And beside the question in capital letters, you wrote, “DO IT!!”
Fast forward to a couple weeks ago in the hospital, you said that you had crossed everything off of your bucket list and didn’t have anything more you felt you needed to do. How lucky you were to be at this place in your life, at the end of your life.
You had been philosophizing with friends about the afterlife, you had sold the farm and purged and organized much of your belongings. You were giving money to several people and organizations; which was another point you had written down on your list, “Help others financially, when opportunities arise.”
You also listed that you wanted "to visit lonely people more", but my whole life I had always known you to do that. You had a soft spot in your heart for those who didn’t have a lot of family or friends or struggled financially. I so loved that about you.
I also loved and could relate to the introvert that you were. Another point read, “Try to go into Birch Hills and Prince Albert more for coffee.” And in capital letters beside it you wrote, “TRY!” I am not sure if you did this one as I know how hard it was for you to put yourself in social situations often, but it makes my heart proud that you realized how good it would be for you to get out of your comfort zone and not be alone all the time.
Another point…”Accept my age and try to be content, as I do have it pretty good!”
Indeed there had been strife in your life, much loss and loneliness, but none of us are immune to these experiences and without them, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to evolve as humans. Each year that I knew you, Dad, you became a better person. Not just because of what life experience had put you through but because you made a conscious CHOICE to be.
This last week, going through your photo albums and seeing how much you got to smile, laugh, travel and how long you were able to keep farming; a career that you had so much passion for, well, it has helped my broken heart to feel a little less broken, being reminded of the wonderful life you created for yourself here.
And the last point you wrote:
"Think of all your blessings and be at peace."
I witnessed you living this statement so much lately, but especially the last weeks of your life. Everyday you seemed to be able to find something to be grateful for in that hospital.
We were so lucky to be able to have this time, just you and I, father and daughter. The most we’ve been able to spend together day after day like that, probably since I was a little girl. It was sad sometimes of course because of the situation and place we were in, but despite this, I think we both knew that we had been given a special gift.
You got to tell me stories I had not ever heard and how proud you were of me and I was able to not just thank you, but explain to you in detail, just how much your example, advice and support has helped me throughout my life. I had the great honour of caring for you and being with you for your last breaths. I was blessed to have this with Mom and Tronn also. If I could be granted one wish, it would be to have all three of you here with me again, but instead I get to have not one, not two, but three guardian angels guiding me and keeping me safe. And if anyone knows that I need a little extra help to keep from tripping and falling on my face on a daily basis, it’s you.
When I called “Unca Don” Swenson after you passed, he said that he just finished listening to a song that reminded him of you and the way you lived your life, “I Did It My Way” by Frank Sinatra. You certainly did. Right up to your last breath, with grace, dignity and love, hugs and music all around you.
This is not goodbye Papa, just farewell. Give my love to Tronn and I will see you soon.