The last week of his earthy life, Richard was in Trillium Woods hospice facility. Terminal restlessness, confusion and hallucinations made it impossible for me to continue caring for him by myself in our home. We knew the cancer was likely spreading into his brain.
Because he was confused and disconnected from what was happening, he had to be taken to the facility by ambulance in the middle of the night. When I arrived at Trillium, he was sitting up and asked if I would go get him chicken McNuggets. It was 3 o’clock in the morning. He was joking, I think. The previous 24 hours he was in and out of reality: he did however really like his McNuggets.
Aside from the ALS and cancer, he was still relatively healthy and young. He was just 59. His heart, lungs and other vital organs were still functioning. Though he was ready to die, his body needed time to shut down. This was going to be a matter of hours, days or weeks; no one but God could know.
The staff at Trillium is outstanding. I knew he would receive exceptional care. Before Richard got sick, I used to take Shiloh, our Collie, to visit patients and families while they were going through this process. Hospice workers are a rare breed. They are given the ability to love beyond the norm.
After that first night, he was no longer able to interact with us. The medical team kept him sedated to keep him safe. The first few nights, I stayed with him overnight. Periodically throughout the night, I would gently slip onto the bed, lay next to him and hold him. Telling him how proud I was of him and how much I loved him, I assured him it was ok for him to let go and he was “ending well”. That was his greatest desire, to end well.
Overcoming the life long pattern of hiding guilt and shame with drugs and alcohol, the last year with him was nothing short of miraculous. He was fully present every waking hour. He was attentive to the needs of others before his own. Every opportunity to encourage someone was embraced with love and laughter even through drooling. Richard became so “other “focused, he didn’t care if he drooled. Loving was so much more important than appearance.
The life of addiction requires blame shifting to protect the lifestyle. During his last year, he took every possible opportunity to make amends and take full responsibility for the hurt he caused. Focused on the needs of those who cared about him as well as strangers, he spoke life into us every day. He wanted to try to make up for all the years he was emotionally absent.
A couple of weeks before he went into hospice, we were having our daily, “How are you doing?” conversation. This became our daily routine throughout that last year. An opportunity to talk about life, death, dying, transformation, love, God and anything else we needed to share, was necessary for us. Richard, through tears, said, “I want to hang on as long as possible to give you, my kids and my mom what you need to make this transition easier on you. I spent so many years turning away from you. Now that I know how to love, I don’t want to take that away from you again.”
I was listening to his sweet, sensitive, sincere heart, as a question only the Spirit could give me flowed out. “Richard, in all the years of addict insanity, did you ever ask God to do whatever it would take to make you stop hurting the people you love?” He replied, “Thousands of times.” I said, “What you have done this last year by being present with us has brought tremendous healing. As you have told me many times, you know you were only able to do this because of getting ALS. Knowing you were dying was the final catalyst to step into the reality of living. If this is what it took, is it worth it to you?” He, without a second’s hesitation said, “Absolutely. I would give my life to heal the hurt I caused.”
All we ever wanted was Richard to be Richard. He ran away from himself and us for years. The last year of his life we had him and he was wonderful. The courage it took him to do what he did in that transforming process still amazes me. He was physically dying yet mentally and emotionally coming alive. It was a privilege to watch.
This picture is the last picture we have “together”. I took it a day or two before his heart stopped beating. The last night I stayed with him, I held his hand all night long and most of the next day. Though his body was shutting down, I could still feel warmth in his hand. I wanted him to be free from this broken down body. The chronic pain perpetuating the addiction, the addict thought patterns he had to fight so continuously, guilt and shame from choices he made and every lie he believed about being inadequate, not good enough or a failure would be eliminated permanently.
Feeling the warmth in his hand, I soaked in the moment as tears streamed down my face. His beautiful, sparkling, bright, blue eyes which were so clear the last year were now dull and void of emotion. He was already in a better place, all that remained was a portion of him connected to his physical body. I wanted to hold on to his warmth for just awhile longer; to remember the last year and thank God for the man he became. He found freedom to be Richard, living in reality, with us. Many people would say how sad it was he couldn’t have found it sooner. We just celebrated it happened at all.