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Just a Little More
Last week, I attended the funeral of my father-in-law’s second wife. Mildred died nine years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; thankfully, its progression was very slow for most of that time, and it wasn’t until the last couple of months that she began a sharp decline.
At dinner after Mildred’s funeral, my father-in-law Nick talked a bit about what had happened. Mildred had reached the point where she was refusing to get out of bed or to eat, and the doctor suggested putting her in a nursing home for rehabilitation therapy. Nick refused: he saw no point in rehab, because he knew there was no coming back from where she was. There was no reason to put her through agonizing and difficult rehab just to, at best, slow her decline a bit.
Instead, she entered hospice care. Nick described a moment that had happened on the afternoon of Mildred’s last day. During a visit from their church’s pastor, Mildred — who by then had become unresponsive — suddenly seemed to come back. She wasn’t able to speak, but for just a few minutes, she was clearly lucid, focusing her eyes on them and reacting to their words. She lifted her hand and gestured expressively, and joyfully, when the pastor sang a hymn. It lasted only a few minutes, but for those minutes, she was herself again.
A few hours later, Nick watched as she stopped breathing, started again, stopped again, and quietly slipped away.
Nick’s eyes were full of tears as he told us this story, but I realized something: these were not just tears of sadness. He was recalling something that had been beautiful to witness. It was sad that he had to lose her, but if she had to go, she did it in the best possible way: peacefully, joyfully, and surrounded by love. I am certain that Nick misses her, but I am in awe of his willingness to let her go when the time came.
Nick and Mildred had a remarkable story. They knew each other in high school, six decades ago, but went their separate ways. Mildred married a military man and lived all over the world; Nick stayed in their hometown and married the woman who became my wife’s mother.
Each of them loved their spouses dearly, and each of them lost their spouses too soon. Mildred moved back home, and both of them became involved in church volunteer activities; it was during a church trip somewhere that Mildred spotted a familiar face from her past. She and Nick renewed their acquaintance, and a few years later they were married. (My daughter was the flower girl at their wedding.)
They became as happy together as they had ever been, and were married for seventeen years.
One thing I have learned about myself is that I have a hard time accepting the permanent loss of anything. The problem is that any change can be seen as a loss, and life is change. When changes come gradually, I tend not to notice them, and I don’t look back; but when I face an abrupt change in my life, I have an unfortunate tendency to focus on what I’m losing, forgetting that I am (hopefully) gaining something as well. This causes me to cling to the familiar, sometimes longer than I should: I try to preserve things exactly as they are, but that’s impossible.
I have learned to fight this tendency in myself, but I often see it manifested elsewhere, in ways both big and small. It seems to me to be a particularly American tendency to always want more of a good thing. We see this in popular culture, where so many TV shows and movie series go on far longer than they should. Obviously, money is a big reason for that, but the only reason such things are profitable is because people want them.
In the face of such pressure, it’s hard to make the right decision. Peanuts was a groundbreaking comic strip, but Charles Schulz kept it going decades after it had stopped being relevant or interesting. Conversely, Bill Watterson abruptly ended Calvin and Hobbes after only a decade, because he recognized that he had done everything with it that he wanted to do. We might wish there were more Calvin and Hobbes, but would we have been happier had it gone on until it wasn’t good anymore? Instead, we can unreservedly appreciate what there is of it, all of it at its peak.
There are lots of TV shows that we would remember more fondly if their creators had been wise enough to stop when they were done, and lots of movie franchises that should have stopped with one movie. But it’s an instinct: when you like something, you want more of it. Even when you should know that there isn’t any more.
I didn’t know where I was going when I started writing this. But having just been forced to retire from my job of thirty-one years, naturally, I have been thinking a lot about this sort of thing.
It occurs to me that my forced retirement might well have been a good thing in one way. I had been planning to retire in a few years, but in the back of my mind was a caveat: maybe I won’t feel ready to retire yet. I reserved the right to change my mind, to decide that I was still enjoying my job, or maybe just that I wasn’t ready to let go of the comfortable and familiar. If I am honest about it, I’d say the odds were better than even that that’s what would have happened.
But would I really have been better off to keep working until I didn’t like my job anymore? Would I have been better off clinging to the familiar routine, denying myself the opportunity to try something new and different? One can never know for sure with counterfactuals, but it might be better that the decision was made for me. There is obviously no point in railing against an event that I had no control over, but moreover, there might well be good reasons to be thankful for it.
And seeing how my father-in-law has accepted the change in his life, I realize that this is a lesson I ought to have learned a long time ago, and certainly should take to heart now. Nothing lasts forever, and in that sense, every good thing I have today I will eventually lose. But I have a choice: I can try to deny that truth, fighting every loss and hanging onto things until they aren’t the things I love anymore. Or, like Nick, I can accept that the end of a story is part of the story. And we all like stories with happy endings.Published in General
I wish you all the best in your next chapter.
Wonderful post. Important ideas to chew on.
We had a similar experience with the death of my mother. It’s one of the most profound experiences of my life. She was surrounded by everyone e she brought into this world, touching her as she slipped away to be with Dad.
Very thankful for them and that experience.
Best wishes in your next chapter.
Outstanding post. Great stuff.
Your personal reflections are always deep and meaningful. Thanks, once again, for sharing with us.
I am within weeks of 76 years old and have been retired for about 91/2, years. I can tell you this, I have loved every minute of being retired. Life has its trickery. Sometimes what seems to be an awful event turns out to be wonderful…and vice versa. Be well and enjoy.
I found so much to commend as you described the people surrounding the events leading to Mildred’s death. First off, commendable to know this doctor wanted to offer the family a chance to have her stay a while longer, at least as an option.
In the past some doctors viewed an older woman with Alzheimer’s as better off not remaining here any longer. So realizing the example of this doctor offering up treatment possibilities, I hope this trend will continue.
I also think that loving family members have to make what can be difficult decisions to not prolong the life of a dear family member past a certain point. (Which certainly does not excuse my son, who as a teenager, offered up the wisdom of “Go to the light, Mom, go to the light” whenever I had a bad cold.)
Fate needs to be commended for bringing your father-in-law back into a fine connection with Mildred all the many years after their initial separation.
And God was apparent in Mildred’s final moments, right before taking her Home.
Thank you for writing this. I’m seven months (in three more days) out from the death of my husband and I keep thinking I’m moving along and then stuff comes up out of nowhere and smacks me back down again. I love remembering the good things. But, then it just reminds me that those aren’t coming back. I think I’m going to try to just enjoy those little memory moments and bask in them. Then, inevitably, I’ll feel sad again. But! It’s okay to enjoy those good things. One story ended, but it’s okay to review it with joy!
I pray that Mildred rests in peace. I share your appreciation for how Nick handled his loss, I can only hope to be half as level-headed when the time comes.
As for your retirement, I’m in a similar situation as you, I also had to leave my job after 31 years of active duty and civil service with the Navy. Right after leaving, I wanted to finally use my as yet untouched GI Bill benefits. Since my last duty station was in Japan and we already owned our house, it was an easy decision to stay here as an expat. I found a few local universities that accept GI Bill funds, so I attended Sophia University in Tokyo. I wanted to learn more about the underlying factors for the friction that flares up periodically between Japan, China, and Korea. I ended up taking nearly all of the history courses taught in English in the liberal arts program, earning a second bachelors degree and then a masters degree last Sept. Along the way, I also burnished my Japanese language skills sufficiently that I now spend a bit of my time translating Japanese works into English, something that I never wanted to do while I was still working. I’m also doing part-time work for an academic journal at Sophia, and I was even invited to sit in on a literature course after graduating. I ended up translating a few short stories into English to help the non-Japanese speaking students, which the professor greatly appreciated. I’m doing these not for the money, more for the challenges and to use the knowledge I learned at Sophia.
You’ve got your own road to follow, but I hope my example gives you even a bit of inspiration to pursue something you had never envisioned. Wherever that leads you, I wish you the best.