End-of-Life Lessons From My Dad

Photo of the author as a toddler, dressed for church, with her dad crouched next to her, steadying her as she walks
Dad and me, circa 1987

When I was a kid, my dad was what today we might call my lead parent.  My mom was involved in my life too, but she often worked 60 hours a week and sometimes had to travel for work.  My dad’s work day ended at 3:00, and he had a little more flexibility in terms of taking time off, so he was the one who picked me up from day care, took me to my first day of kindergarten, and attended school events.  I spent a good bit of time with him when I was young, and he taught me many of life’s essential early lessons.

I sometimes took my dad for granted in my adolescent years, as teens often do.  He went through some hard times and battled some demons, and I didn’t always understand or appreciate him.  When I was in 11th grade, and again during my first year of college, he was hospitalized with serious health issues.  These brushes with death transformed my dad and my relationship with him, and I’m especially grateful for the person he became and the times we spent together over the past 15 years.

Though he may not have realized it, my dad continued to teach me important lessons in his final months, weeks, days, and even hours.  He confronted death bravely and with grace. He accepted it as a fact of life.  I used to get a little annoyed with him for making jokes about his mortality, thinking he was being pessimistic and morbid, but he understood that he was going to die someday, just like everyone else. He knew that his day would come sooner than he might have hoped, but he wasn’t scared of death.  He allowed his illness to motivate him to be a kinder person, and I think he truly appreciated every conversation and experience he had in the last months of his life.

He lived for the moment and appreciated what he had.  Though he continued to make plans for the future, he was content.  Sometime during the last year, he told me, “I’ve lived my life. I’ve seen the world. There’s nothing else I need to do. I’m happy.”  Shopping for my dad for holidays and birthdays was always a challenge because he never wanted much.  He wasn’t drowning in an excess of material things, he was just satisfied with what he had.

Even as he struggled with his illness, he was always more concerned about my mom and me than about himself.  This past winter, he told his priest that he knew he was dying, and he accepted that, but he just wanted to be sure that my mom would be ok.  During my last real conversation with him, two days before he was admitted to the hospital, he asked me how I was feeling and if I was doing alright.  He didn’t complain about how hard it was for him to breathe.  He was focused on my wellbeing instead of his own.

He never lost his sense of humor.  When he was in high school, my dad was voted class clown.  He was always a jokester, and he loved to laugh.  To him, life was something that should never be taken too seriously.  A couple of days before he died, when he was on a venitalor and couldn’t speak, he was making jokes with his eyes and hand gestures, trying to lighten the somber mood in the ICU and let all of us know that he was ok — if not physically, at least mentally.

Even in death, he expressed gratitude.  Over the past year or two, he had thanked me when I’d visited, taken my parents out to dinner, or shown them around my new hometown.  On his final day with us, one of the last things he said from behind the BiPAP mask as he laid in his hospital bed was, “Thank you, everyone.”  He was thanking the nurses and medical staff who had cared for him as they prepared to administer the morphine he requested.  He knew he had struggled as much as he could, but he wasn’t bitter — he was grateful.

May we all strive to maintain that level of gratitude, presence, and selflessness to the end of our own lives.  Thank YOU, Dad, for everything you did for me, and for being you.  I love you.

The author's father reclining on the seat of a pontoon boat
Dad enjoying what would be his last boat ride, June 10, 2017.

2 thoughts on “End-of-Life Lessons From My Dad

  1. Such a lovely post Alexis. I see so much of you in what you just wrote. You take time to let other people know what they mean to you and strive to notice and appreciate the big and little things in your life too. <3

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