There are a few days that stand out in my life as if they were yesterday. Our wedding day 38 years ago is one. I can remember some moments and thoughts in sharp detail – some insignificant things are vivid memories. The days of our kids’ births are sharp “snapshot days” among a blur of ordinary. I can remember which flowers were blooming, the temperature, and my bad hair dos!
I also remember the month of September 2006. It was a beautiful fall. The changing leaves were vivid and the color lasted a long time. It was a precious month. A hard month. September was a defining month and our lives changed forever. It was the month my dad, John M. Hunter, died.
In the spring of 2006, my dad (84) was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and he agreed to a trial chemotherapy regimen. He started taking the medicine at the end of August, becoming very ill on Labor Day weekend. Dehydrated, he went to the hospital, thinking he would get IV fluids and be back in his own house later that same night. He never came home.
After about 10 days in the hospital, we learned that he needed hospice care. My mom did not want to care for Daddy at home, so Cindy and I went to interview the two hospice facilities in Lansing. One of the hardest conversations of my life was telling my dad why he couldn’t come home. Another was making sure he understood what “hospice” is.”It’s where you go to die,” he said. “I never thought I would never come home.” (From a man who understood double negatives!)
Hospice of Lansing, a wonderful facility, had a room for my dad, so we made arrangements for an ambulance to transport him across town. I waited with my dad for the transfer. Communication within the hospital was a little slow, and a lab tech came in to do a routine blood draw. We refused.
The ambulance attendants were compassionate and respectful. They asked me, “If something happens on the ride, what are we supposed to do?” I thought it “funny” that we’re taking my dad to a place to die and they’re worried about should we try to make him live longer if he has a crisis! But, they have to ask. It was good to know of my dad’s “DNR” wishes. Upon arrival at the hospice, the attendants wheeled him through the parking lot, going out of their way so he could see his red Mustang parked safely and dent-free (he’d been worried about Cindy driving it!).
For the next few days, we had a blur of family coming and spending time with Daddy. I spent several nights in East Lansing, either at my parents’ home or at the hospice. He was pretty lucid most of the time and kept a good sense of humor, but each day we could see him declining. Pastor Mark Van Valin, my boss, visited him on Thursday, September 21 and told me that afternoon, “If you want to say anything to your dad, you’d better get up there.” I left right away.
That night I sang hymns to him (Gentle Shepherd, Amazing Grace). I felt so sorry for him, because I cannot sing! My dad loved music and had this awful tone-deaf voice sending him off to glory! I kept praying that God would translate my bad singing into something beautiful! The last response I had with my dad, “Daddy, I know you love music, and I don’t know if my bad singing is bothering you or if you like it. If you like it, smile.” And smile he did!
From Thursday night to the day he died, Tuesday, the 26th, he was unresponsive. He developed that horrible “death rale” breathing. In the late night “twilight” sleep, I thought the noise was from a coffee percolator or one of those home water features (I’ll never have one in my house!). Then I would realize it was my dad breathing. Lord, have mercy!
I was with my dad in the wee hours of the morning when he stopped breathing. I always hoped for that “moment” when I would “know” that he understood and accepted Jesus. Never got that, and just trust that the Holy Spirit worked in those last days. My dad grew up Methodist, was very moral and his understanding was that a Christian was a good dad, faithful husband and good provider. Which he was.
My dad had a “pioneer” spirit – taking his wife and three young (then 4 & 2) daughters to Saigon in 1955, to Colombia in 1959, Argentina in 1962 and Rio de Janeiro in 1967. He loved travel and he ended his career at Michigan State as Director of International Studies. He was well-respected, kind and had a great sense of humor. His pioneer spirit led him to take experimental chemo (which I believe hastened his death), and donate his body to science.
Because he willed his body to MSU Medical School, he had one last ambulance ride on that Tuesday morning. His mom wanted him to be a doctor and now he was off to medical school! He left wearing a Spartan baseball cap, and the ambulance driver “whooped” the siren as they drove up the drive. An ambulance ride was one of his “bucket list” items (which he experienced – and loved – when he had his heart attack 15 years earlier).
Five years later: I still remember the beauty of the fall. I did a lot of driving between Spring Arbor and East Lansing. The season was a visible reminder of God’s presence. My mom and I are closer than we’ve ever been. I spend every Friday (well, 99% of them) with her, except when she’s in Florida for the winter. I’ve learned a lot about my mom and the web of friendships she’s developed through the years. She still hosts golf brunches, though I bet it’s been 10 years since she’s played golf! She’s optimistic, resilient and loving. She’s been remarkably strong, and remarkably appreciative of her three “angels.”
Every fall these memories come flooding back. I’m grateful for the precious time we had with my dad. So grateful for these five years with my mom. Thankful for my Jim, Keith and Emily, and for my job who are so supportive. My sisters have been incredible: Cindy houses my mom for three months every winter and Judy comes over for several days at a stretch and takes care of so many things that need “doing.” I’m appreciative of the good relationship that the three of us have!
Yes, September 2006 was a hard month. It also was a good month. It’s one of those “stone” times. God told Joshua to place stones, “to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, “What do these stones mean? tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off … These stones are to serve as a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” Joshua 4:5-7
So as the anniversary of his death is approaching, it is good to remember. To be reminded of God’s presence, comfort and care in the midst of pain. To have assurance that he is with us through it all. This blog-post is my version of a “stone,” a memorial of God with us!