A Good Man's Death
An Account of My Dad’s Final Journey
By Curt Ferguson, November 15, 2008
[With day-to-day updates thereafter]
I am watching a good man die. It is a fascinating experience. Emotions ebb and flow around the house where it is happening.
I believe it was John Wesley who said, "Our people die well." This man is dying well.
He is looking forward to what awaits on the other side. He wants to be shaved each day, looking his best for the trip when Jesus comes to get him. Each morning he says he thinks it will be today. Each evening, maybe tomorrow.
He is torn, of course. He loves his family, his friends, his fellow-workers, his church, his nieces and nephews, even the customers he was serving just last week (lesser men would have quit many months ago, when this cancer had advanced to the brutal stage). He loves the men he helped through Interfaith Freedom Initiative (Prison Fellowship). He loves the children from his small community, many of whom are now grown, who he invited and transported to Sunday School.
His loved ones are mostly on this side; we won't be going with him...not now, anyway. Oh, yes, there are others he loved who are awaiting his arrival. His mother. Ronnie & Harry, his dear brothers-in-law. Others, too, of course. He looks forward to seeing them. But he already said goodbye to them, and he's still with the rest of us, the living. The approaching separation carries some natural dread.
He looks forward mostly to seeing Jesus. After all, that is who he has served. His selfless service and love to those around him has been nothing if not motivated by his love for his Savior. Jesus changed his life dramatically. I was 5 at the time, and don't remember him from before. But from what I hear, Jesus' influence changed him from a truly "nice guy" to perhaps the finest man, father, husband, neighbor, friend and example the world has known. Even on his deathbed as people come by the house to say their often-teary goodbyes, and while his mind is fogged by enormous amounts of pain medication, he searches for words to give Jesus Christ credit for all the good that has come from his life, for the things people thank him for. For those who are not believers, he gropes for one final word to say to encourage them to trust Jesus with their future.
I will never be the same for having shared these hours, so far, a couple of days. Hospice tells us it might be another week or more. He doesn't want it to be. After all, he's been the "man of the house" since he was 10, when his father died in this same house. He feels like in his condition he is no longer able to give and serve, that he is now just the one who is being served, and he doesn't want to live that way. Of course he is incorrect. Even in the groggy fog of methadone and morphine, he finds ways to give. He is blessing us all, even through his embarrassment and discomfort. But let us not be selfish. We must let him go...so we are ready. We will miss him for the rest of our lives, but will look forward to a reunion. Where he will be, it will seem like no time at all, so there will be no time for him to miss us. And we'll keep his memory steering us, as a tangible representation of Jesus Himself, in our lives until we each rejoin him.
Lord, we know Dad is ready to meet you. We are confident that what awaits him is beautiful and pleasing beyond our imagination. We are ready for you to take him out of his agony, to heal him once and for all. His final victory over cancer, over death itself, although bittersweet, will be a time of celebration for us all. Help us to grow each day until that right moment, when you will take Richard Ferguson to your side.
Nov 19, 2008
Dad thought he was leaving for good around midnight last night. "Not sure why, I just feel different," he said. "What are you feeling that makes you think so?" I asked. "Joy!" he beamed. The rest of the family gathered into his bedroom, talked, cried, smiled, prayed, and sang hymns together. It was beautiful. As time slipped past and "nothing happened" Dad's spirits sank slowly but visibly. A few (counting Mom, kids, our spouses and grandkids, there are 12 of us "living" here to be with Dad) started to drift back out of his bedroom to their various air mattresses, couches, sleeping bags, etc. Most of us lingered, until he announced, "dismissed." That cleared everyone but his son, sleeping on the floor by his bed. He struggled the rest of the night with pain and disappointment. By noon the medicine was increased enough, it started holding his pain at bay again.
Nov 20, 2008
Dad is sleeping most of the time now, heavily medicated. Maybe his premonition of dying night before last was not actually about death, but a last opportunity for us to be with him and he really to enjoy us, smiling, singing with us, and happy. As the dosages have increased, now we only get a few minutes with him--and he with us--each time he wakes. He eats some pudding or yogurt, drinks water or eggnog, takes his pills and quickly starts nodding off again. But he seems to be in little pain now. Thank you, God.
Nov 21, 2008
No noticeable change today. "I'd like to just go to sleep and wake up in heaven," he said. Several visitors; dad even made the rest of us "clear out" of his bedroom so he could give personal advice to one. The last granddaughter arrived today. In his wheelchair Dad joined us and some extended family for supper at the dining room table tonight. Rather disoriented tho. "My body is just wasting away," he told me as we tucked him in for the night. That's OK, he won't need it much longer. Days? Weeks? Just allow him to stay out of serious pain, Lord.
Nov 22, 2008
Seems to all of us that Dad was slower, less sharp during his waked time today. He spent some extra minutes (doubtless their last) with the eldest granddaughter, as she has to leave tomorrow morning. My daughters and one son-in-law had to leave for a few days. We three kids and Mom gathered in this evening and Dad actually joined us in singing his favorite song, I'd Rather Have Jesus (which he will be singing via recording at his funeral). He says things we don't understand at times. Once when giving him meds he asked me something like, "think I can get out the smaller garage door?" I assured him he can leave any way he wants and anytime he is ready. We'll be fine, Dad; you taught us responsibility and to trust Jesus.
Nov 23, 2008
As I lay on the mattress beside his hospital bed in the earlier part of the morning, listening to his labored, gap-filled breathing, it seemed that this was probably going to be the day Dad got to really go Home. At 9:30, he opened his eyes and rather suddenly asked, "What's for dinner?" Before I really got an answer out, his eyes closed again and he seemed asleep. Later: "what time is it?" Answer: "About 10 am." Question: "What did I have for breakfast?" Answer: "A roll and some yogurt" (a few bites of each, which he had to be reminded to chew...and to swallow). Around 10:40: "What are we having for dinner?" Someone who knew told him about the meal dear friends had brought for us to heat up today. Made me think, I bet in heaven he is going to get a lot of good meals. After eating lunch on the side of his bed, Dad was relatively perkier the rest of the day; although he still slept most of the time, he seemed to be swallowing better when he was awake. Got him into his wheelchair and out of the bedroom for over an hour this evening. We'll see what another night holds.
Nov 24, 2008
Interesting day it has been. During the night Dad had me read some of the emails he has received in the last week from people saying goodbye and thanking him for his positive influence on their lives. That brought happy, sometimes almost incredulous tears to his eyes. Then he slept. The morning started much like any other. Dad wanted to get out of bed at lunchtime, and for the next 4 hours wouldn't go back to bed. Ate. Showered (one of us got clean, the other sweaty). Shaved. Ate dessert. "Dictated" a letter of recommendation, then edited it at length. Finally went back to bed around 4 and we realized that one of his "sleepy" meds was not given at its usual noon time. Supper time he was back up in his wheelchair to join us at the table. Sat on his bed after that and told us some stories (recorded those- yeesss!) but finally admitted he was in a lot of pain. Too much activity today. A dear couple stopped in to visit then, and with them and dad we enjoyed singing, reading a Psalm, and praying together. Finally worn out, he went to sleep...only to wake up within an hour. Still hurting. Now (9:20) he wants to watch a video! Looks like it will be Secondhand Lions. Gets his mind off the pain. Every day is a new experience, and today it's been "never a dull moment"...
Nov 25, 2008
Much different than yesterday. Not much activity. Hospice nurse came early afternoon, said some of his physical evidences of 'the end' had actually diminished! Blood pressure still pretty strong. Meds apparently kept him sleepier today, tho; he hardly woke long enough to take meds and a few bites of food until after 5pm. Then he wanted to go for a wheelchair ride to the living room and watch Brit Hume on FoxNews. A couple of visitors came about then, which always cheers him. He went back to bed by 8, and promptly to sleep. We had some precious moments, as we do every day. We thank God for every "relatively pain free" day. Thanksgiving together looks quite promising; maybe even his 72nd birthday on Dec 1. Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers.
Nov 26, 2008
Dad had a visitor today who brought significant cheer: his Merschman Seed boss came by; they had a very warm visit. Dad's overall condition seemed a bit stronger, almost a rebound of sorts. Pain generally under control, and he had us wheel him to his desk, to two meals, and for some evening time in the living room. Looks like we (my wife and daughters) may be able to get back home to Salem this weekend to take care of some obligations. Who knows? Maybe we will be "commuting" on a regular basis for some time...if Dad holds steady. Such hopes are guarded, of course. He is clearly terminal, but so long as he is pain-free and aware we want him around as long as we can have him!
Nov 27, 2008
One thing to be thankful for like never before...Dad had a very active day and very little pain. Morning was about like others, and Dad joined us for Thanksgiving dinner around 2. Then he asked to be taken outside for a ride in the golf cart! When we came back in, he sat in his recliner in the living room for a couple of hours, before finally asking to be taken back to bed, where he has been sleeping soundly. The relatively stable condition gives us some peace about having to leave tomorrow for a couple of days. Pray for Carma, Canda and Allen as they "hold down the fort" while we take care of obligations in Salem this weekend.
Nov 29, 2008
I am back in Salem, Illinois, taking care of business matters this weekend. Dad's condition yesterday and today seems to be remaining stable at the slightly improved level. Still requires assistance to get out of bed, is wheeled around the house in a wheelchair, and is at his best still a little foggy (mentally). We are expecting an increase in medication soon, tho, as he has complained some about pain again. He spent much of this morning in his recliner in the living room. After lunch, Canda said he wanted to rest, went back to bed. Thanks for your continued prayers.
Dec 2, 2008
Sorry to have missed a couple of days. Laura, our girls and I returned here to the folks' house late Sunday night. Monday was Dad's 72nd birthday! We had company in the evening. Biggest changes I am noticing: dad is starting to lose some bladder control, and when he is awake and alert, he seems to be more easily confused; yesterday during supper, it seemed as tho he momentarily didn't recognize my two sisters who have been here for several weeks. He was teary-eyed about that, seemed to recognize that he is wavering between competent and not. (Company started coming for the 'birthday party' shortly after that.) This morning around his 4am meds, he asked me, "Am I going crazy?" I assured him, no, he wasn't crazy but the medicine is making it hard for him to think straight at times. He still acts like he wants to go to the desk and try to work, but then he is just too sleepy. It is both heart-warming and heart-rending to see him still wanting to be productive; he's never been a slacker!
Dec. 2, 2008, 4pm
Dad has enough wits about him that he continues to struggle with feeling worthless. His life has been so devoted to working, contributing, earning his way, making a difference for others. This new status in life where he simply cannot physically do for others is terribly distressing. This afternoon he shared some of those feelings with me, feeling badly to just "sleep the day away." He wanted to stay up in case Matt, the fellow who is assuming Dad's Merschman territory, would stop by to visit! I tried to assure him that his "work" of that sort is complete, that God has a new role for him. Dad said he could "still pray" and be a help to others that way. He sees it, but it is still a very, very difficult transition to internalize.
Dec. 3, 2008, 11:45pm
Dad seemed a bit stronger today. A couple of times he got up (from sitting on the bed or a chair) with almost no help at all, to get into his wheelchair. Canda's family is still all there; Laura stayed to help out while my girls and Carma and I came back to Salem tonight to take care of some obligations Thursday and Friday. Without any adjustment to his pain pills in the last 2+ weeks, his pain is remaining under control for now. That's the biggest challenge, so we are thankful.
Dec. 4, 2008, 9:10pm
I am in Salem still, but (ironically after last night's post) the word from Iowa is that Dad's pain is coming back. His back and hips are hurting, where it usually kicks in if it returns. Medicine will start increasing, with it's usual effects.
Dec 6, 2008, 1:40pm
Sorry I didn't post yesterday. I was in Salem, arrived back in Iowa at 12:40am today. Dad woke when I came into his room, was very happy to see me, teary-eyed, talked about something I did for him he was thankful for...Hospice adjusted his medicine yesterday, and I couldn't quite make out what he was talking about, seemed to be about the Memo we helped him write to all of his Merschman customers...gracefully telling them about his 'new assignment', thanking them for their patronage, and encouraging them to give his successor the same respect as they have always given him. Dad slept pretty well the rest of the night, up a couple of times, but mostly sleeping until 7:30 am or so. He is up right now in the recliner; thankfully, he seems to be pretty comfortable.
Dec 7, 2008, 3pm
Up several times last night. Seems his new medication routine is making Dad more unpredictable. This morning we got some of the first hints of a sort of "rebellious" attitude from him, in an "I can do it myself" situation; he even said something about wanting to "go to the county home" instead of staying here with us caring for him! We're confident that it is the medicine and possibly tumors on his head that are making him this way. And thankfully, it doesn't seem to be a new direction, but was more of an aberration. Later in the morning, and through and since lunch, he has been in good humor, laughing at lame jokes, and making a few of his own. Again, he is up in the recliner this afternoon. We pray, and appreciate yours, that his mind won't go off in the hostile direction. It would be so out of his character. I think it was Norman Vincent Peale who said, "As you are at 30 you will be at 70, only more so." If that holds true with this slipping mind, we don't have anything to worry about.
Dec 8, 2008, 10:30pm
Slept better than ever last night, only up at 2:30 and 6, then slept in ‘til 9! During that earliest morning wake time, sitting on the bed beside each other, I asked him, "Do you still think about heaven?" "Oh, yeah!" was his immediate reply, followed by something like it "has to be better than" this life. It was a good day; thank you for any prayers you offered, esp. on yesterdays "request"...so far, they are being answered. He was so gracious and pleasant again today. It is a little amusing, in a way, how his mind has become a bit juvenile. It makes it easy to get a chuckle out of him! We moved a bird feeder to be in view outside his bedroom window, and he was moved to tears when he saw it. For years he has loved to sit at his desk and watch the birds outside that window, but he can't get to his desk now. Later, I quietly thanked him for being so gracious to let us help him in the many ways he now requires, and he turned the thank you around, of course, in appreciation for what we are doing. Then, squelching tears of gratitude, he said "let's go watch a ballgame." I pictured Candy and Martin in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. (Some others were watching a cooking show, so we just joined them.)
Dec 9, 2008, 3pm
No obvious change today. Seems we're in a rather stable situation. Dad's seems tired of taking pills, seems weary when we offer him 8 pills before breakfast. But, he dutifully complies. Didn't stay up long, went back to bed and slept through lunch. We'll likely see him up and out for supper, maybe to the recliner for an hour or two. A shower wore him out totally. It does seem his mind gets a bit foggier each day. Tomorrow, Laura the girls and I must go back to Salem again for a couple of days. (Our van has a transmission problem--we'll have to use the folks' van for the round trip. Grrrr)
Dec 11, 2008, 8pm
We left Wednesday a little before noon, had to go to Salem for work. When I called him in the evening, and again today, he is pretty hard to converse with on the phone. Partly just his voice, but he also can't follow a thought thru to a complete sentence, it seems. Mom says he slept most of the day. Pain still at bay, tho.
Dec 13, 2008, 7:45pm
Seeing Dad this afternoon, I am pretty amazed at how far he has declined in the last three days. Did not leave his bedroom today, did not eat anything after a couple of bites of pancake this morning. Hasn't been able to keep his pills down orally. Although he woke momentarily when I arrived this afternoon, and seemed glad to see me, he hasn't really been able to make any sort of conversation at all. Made me understand that he wanted to be warmer (turned off his ceiling fan, covered him with a blanket) and wanted to use the bedside toilet, and that's about it. When he wakes he is pretty much just staring-into-space. Maybe it is God's time; maybe Dad is starting his descent...maybe he's about to "touch down" at his new home...at this rate the landing may take him a few days.
Dec 14, 2008, 4:45pm
Up several times in the night, generally refusing to take pills; one pain medication is a liquid given by a dropper, we just keep giving him that. Dad is very mixed up, tho. Has talked several times about "going home"; we think at times he is talking about going to his house, i.e. home from the hospital (and we reassure him, point out the window, etc. that he is home--which amazes and pleases him) and other times we think he may be talking about going "home" to heaven. We had a very special time with him this afternoon, after Cameron and I showered him. (That project was the hardest it has ever been, he being less able to help than ever before.) He was bushed when we got him back into bed. After lying there a few minutes, he looked up at me, curiously, and asked: "When did we meet?" "January 24, 1965," I replied, "when I was born and you saw your new son." Amazement went over his face, then tears as he reached to give me a big hug. "Where have you lived?" he asked. We talked like this for awhile, then I "introduced" him to my wife. Each family member who is here came into his bedroom, reminded him who they were, and he hugged them, and expressed overwhelming joy at all of us being right there with him. We sat and stood around his bed awhile, and he talked more than he had in awhile about heaven, and going to be with Jesus. He even cried for people who "won't go there." Still thinking of others...
Dec 15, 2008, 9:15pm
About two hours ago I told my nephew that it would not surprise me if tonight is Dad's night. I'm probably wrong, but he is definitely getting closer. He asked several times about his car and pickup, like he is planning a trip. Wanted to know where his coat is. He shows more physical signs, it seems. Weaker. More confused. Has to be reminded repeatedly that he is in his home; apparently thinks he is at the hospital when he is in his bedroom. He did sit in the recliner again today (after missing 2 days) but slept nearly the whole time. Still not eating, generally refuses to take pills. Has some additional pains he tells us about when we ask. Mom and sisters took a much-needed afternoon/evening off; this evening at bedtime Dad asked repeatedly where they were, when they are coming. We'll see.
Dec 18, 2008, 7:30am
Dad made it through the night (Dec 15) and another (Dec 16) and I haven't received "the call" yet this morning, so I am assuming he is still with us this morning. I've been away almost 2 days. Yesterday, sisters reported that Dad slept in the recliner chair instead of his bed Tuesday night. Still generally staying sweet in spirit. Monday night (2:30am) he got a bit obstinate, wanting to go outside and go somewhere in his car, even "if you kids won't go with me, I'll go myself," and tried to stand on his own. Couldn't. He is also a bit testy about taking pills now. Hospice says we must get the methadone in him one way or another. A set that he swallowed yesterday, however, didn't stay down. Since he hasn't eaten anything, maybe his stomach just won't hold anything. Vitals were still generally strong Wednesday when Hospice visited. Like the Energizer Bunny...
Dec 19, 2008, 9:30pm
When we arrived back at the folks place today, there is a marked difference. Dad is considerably weaker, and cannot maintain a coherent conversation, or really a sentence. His voice is down to a coarse whisper. He regularly asks about his car, is it available, where are the keys. Wants to go to town. No reason given that we can understand. He sips a little 7-up, had some orange sherbet in it; orange sherbet float has long been a favorite. He gets about two sips, then loses interest. Hospice gave us a new plan for the pills, since he takes his morphine from a dropper OK; crush the pills, mix them with a little water, and give it to him with the dropper. So far that is working pretty well. This evening he seems to recognize us all pretty consistently. One thing I notice: he doesn't seem to be aware of his weakness and loss of mental capacity; now. He had been expressing frustration about that sort of thing. Now he seems unaware of it. That is a blessing. He sits in the recliner all day (slept there almost 11 hours straight last night!); then two of us move him to the wheelchair. Moved his feet a tiny shuffle as we moved him from wheelchair to bed, where he seems ready to sleep tonight.
Dec 20, 2008, 10:30pm
Well, it was a pretty quiet day. After he woke up for meds this morning, Dad slept pretty much continuously ‘til about 5pm. I think this is the first day that he did not leave his bed at all. (OK, two of us stood him for a brief moment while another straightened his sheets.) It does seem like the end is approaching now. Days? The nurses we talk to seem to think so. He was pleasant when awake. At 5pm he took some meds, drank a few sips of 7-up. Said a few words, watched a little Christmas programming on TV, and drifted back to sleep. When he does talk, it is more like he is unaware of his fast-approaching "graduation" from the school of hard knocks. During the night when he was awake, he told Laura and me that he would help us "get the cows" and also offered us the use of his car, and said he'd have mom make us breakfast! Still thinking of the other person. It definitely had become a major part of his character, and still shows itself. Moments ago (10:15) he was awake for a few minutes. Said "I think I'll sleep here one more night." Wonder if it's just his confused mind...or he knows something we don't?
Dec 21, 2008, 7:30pm
As I sit here in the corner of Dad's bedroom, listening and watching him breath erratically and occasionally shift his hands or legs slightly, I can't help but wonder which breath will be the last. This morning, we were talking a bit about where he is (in his nearly lifelong home) and one of us asked, "is there any place you would rather be?"...to which he whispered a one-word reply: "Heaven." We're all with you on that, Dad. Today's new experience: hospice LPN came and helped us give Dad a bed-bath. He objected at first, rather distressed, didn't think he or we needed that help. Had he been physically able I think he would have fled the room! But when Mom said it was OK, he settled down. The best thing about his current status is he usually seems unaware of it, not only is he sleeping the vast majority of the time, but when he is awake he is childlike, generally content to let us help him with his basic needs; and his sporadic moments of clarity are pretty much in character (like his "Heaven" answer). During another of those moments, Christ's coming birthday was mentioned, and he indicated he might be with Jesus by then. What an amazing gift that would be, as expressed in these words from Michael Podesta:
"Imagine stepping onto a shore and finding it heaven.
Imagine taking ahold of a hand and finding it God's hand.
Imagine breathing new air and finding it's celestial air.
Imagine feeling invigorated and finding it immortality.
Imagine passing from storm and tempest to an unknown calm.
Imagine waking and finding it home."
Dec 23, 2008, 5:30am
Early hours of the morning, here. Sitting in Dad's room, again. Giving him cold water on a sponge when he wakens (often, but briefly) and giving him medicine every 90 minutes or so. Dad's biggest change seems to be the ever-increasing [how do I say this?] phlegm building up in his throat, causing his breathing to be rattly, and causing regular coughing/gagging spells. He is so weak; used to put his hands behind his head occasionally, now it seems like he is trying to at times, but can't. Back is always itching, so he squirms, slipping down in the bed that is supposed to keep his head elevated. Last evening (December 22) he wanted his shoes (we put slippers on him) and his Merschman cap (got it, kept it on even while he slept for a couple of hours); then wanted Merschman pants, too! (No such thing.) Seemed like he was going somewhere. We still from time to time get a big happy-looking smile from him, especially when he recognizes us. We thank God for those moments.
Christmas Eve, 2008, 5am
Don't know how much longer it can be. Sitting again in Dad's room listening, whispering to him as we wet his mouth. He has mouthed the words "how long?" I don't know, Dad. "One of these times you're going to close your eyes and the next thing you'll see is Jesus,” I told him. “Try to rest. Close your eyes and ask Jesus to come and get you. He will soon, but we don't know when." Hospice RN was here late yesterday morning. Still doesn't have a lot of the clear signs of the end, she said. Blood pressure up a bit. Phlegm in the throat still a constant discomfort. Lungs still pretty clear. Bladder still functioning. Strong pulse in feet. No obvious mottling in skin color. Yesterday evening Dad’s sister Dorothy and Joe were here. Dad seemed to recognize them after awhile. With them we all sang Christmas carols, then hymns around his bed. Precious time.
Christmas Eve, 2008, 1pm
Dad's pain is over. He has a perfect new body, and is getting all his questions about heaven answered now, in person. Several of us were in his room with him; at about 12:40pm. Thank God, there was no apparent struggle. My Dad gets to spend Jesus' Birthday with Him. What a gift! It's an answer to prayer.
Christmas Eve, 2008, 10:50pm
This will be my final update. Thank you to those who cared to follow our family saga, especially for all your prayers. I believe most of those prayers have been answered. Our family is strong, we firmly believe that Dad is excited about his new home, that he is enjoying his pain-free existence and is experiencing life that is wonderful beyond imagination.
For a man as strong minded, independent, and self-reliant as to all other humans (while remaining humbly dependent on the Lord) as my Dad was--having been the "man of the house" since age 10 when his own daddy died--this last illness was a terrible trial. He bore this "cross" bravely; yet it has obviously been an emotional struggle for him, particularly since he was physically forced to stop working in early November. He rose to the challenge, however, and was gracious and took it (our necessary help) with gratitude that was regularly expressed. Learning to allow others to receive the blessing of giving to him (something he and I discussed several times in recent months) rather than he always being the giver...and getting the attendant blessing that comes with it...was a big learning experience for Dad.
I think that "trial" was God's Final Exam for him. Ultimately, he passed it just fine! He has graduated from the school of hard knocks, and is now experiencing real life, a life beyond fear, pain, temptation, worry, and all of the limitations placed on us by the human condition and physical restraints. For those of you who prayed that he would die peacefully and without (most of) the horrible possibilities that sometimes come with this sort of cancer, again, we thank you, your prayers were answered. We are truly grateful that Dad gets to celebrate Christmas with the One who gave His life for us all, and the One for whom Dad lived.