Finishing the Race: Daddy’s Last Days
by Beverly Cunningham
Dad fought lung cancer the last year and eight months of his life. He had so many doctor trips and treatments. Alan and I went with him and Mom quite often to Charleston. Because of the Lord and these treatments, he and our family had a good summer and a wonderful Christmas in 2002. This turned out to be his last Christmas.
At the beginning of 2003, I think he just got tired of fighting the cancer and knew it was time to go. He probably had been preparing for a while.
On Monday, March 3, Mom took him to Holzer Medical Center. He said that he was so tired and weak. He just wanted to get there and lay down. He had been to the doctor earlier and had been diagnosed with bronchitis. When I went to see him on Tuesday morning, March 4, he couldn’t even get off the bed. Still, he did sit up and try to eat a little lunch. He had lost his appetite. It had been diminishing for a while. We know now that appetite loss was part of the dying process. When I left that day, he was sitting on the edge of the bed looking so thin and very tired. I said, “I love you, Daddy.” I asked the Lord to keep him close, as I had been asking for a while. I wasn’t sure I would see him alive again. Still, I remember feeling such a calm on my way home.
As it turned out, I caught bronchitis and Mom had some kind of virus. Neither of us could go see him the last couple of days he was in the hospital. Beth was there often (thank the Lord) but on the last day he was in the hospital she got sick too.
Zac went to see him on Sunday, March 9. The doctors decided they could do no more. They felt the cancer had spread to his bones. Dad wanted to come home with help from hospice care. We weren’t sure if they would get him home on Sunday or Monday. I was so afraid that he would have to stay until Monday and possibly die down there alone. Finally, I talked to Mom about 9:30 Sunday night. He was home and I was so relieved.
Hospice arrived on Monday, March 10. They brought everything we needed to take care of him.
I couldn’t go over until March 11, Tuesday morning, because of my bronchitis. I’m not sure what time I got there. It was probably before noon. Mom and I ate some lunch. I thought I would have to go to the grocery store. Mom had not gone for two weeks, but Beth got groceries on her way to Mom and Dad’s. It felt strange but when I got there I didn’t want to leave.
Daddy was still alert and talking that day. Actually, I think I got there around nine o’clock because that was the day Olivia came early and played her mandolin for him. Brice, Marcie, Kyle and Kelsey arrived from Maryland that afternoon. Zac and Alan spent the evening there too.
Dad had quit eating altogether. We would soak little sponges on sticks and put them in his mouth so he could suck on them. Then, we would put some moistening gel on his lips. We also gave him medicine in a dropper under his tongue and on his cheek so it would absorb and he would not have to swallow it. The medicine eased his pain and breathing difficulties. He also wore patches behind his ears for congestion.
Throughout the day, he grew restless. He would pick at his clothes and sheets. This restlessness was part of the dying process too. Hospice gave us a booklet to read called The Dying Experience. I never realized that dying was a step-by-step, “predictable” process. His body knew what was happening. It had to go through certain steps. The book helped us to know what to expect next.
That evening, Mom wanted us to sit with Dad through the night. I sat up first with both Dad and Mom. She was lying down, trying to sleep. I think she did for a little while. I went through one stretch of being very, very sleepy around 12:30 in the morning. During this time, Dad kept asking what time it was. I can’t help but wonder why. He asked if I was going to church. Zac and I had been going with Mom to services most Sundays. Dad grew restless again and Mom woke up too.
About 1:30 in the morning on Wednesday, March 12, Dad rolled onto his left side and then decided that it hurt. He was saying his chest hurt and then, “Help me, Bev.” He repeated this several times. Mom woke Brice. He and I worked with him quite a while and finally got him turned onto his back. I told Dad that we weren’t very good at this. He said, “You’re doing alright.” I stayed up a little longer. Sometime that early morning he said, “This must be hard for you, Bev.” Those were the last two things that he said to me.
I went to bed about two o’clock. Mom gave him his medication at four o’clock and it was twenty-four hours before he needed it again. When I got up between 7:00 and 7:30 on that same Wednesday morning, Dad had fallen asleep. After that, he really wasn’t very alert anymore. When Kim, the aide, and Teresa, the nurse, from hospice came at 9:30 it was quite a change from when they were last there on Tuesday morning. He just wasn’t responsive much. Teresa took his vital signs and reported that they were down a little from Tuesday’s readings. It was hard to see him this way.
Olivia, Zac, Alan, Beth and Mark were in and out on this day. We decided that Bruce and Lorna needed to be told to come home. Of course, we had been in touch for several days. That evening, Bruce flew out of Washington, D.C., while Lorna and the boys left Georgia around six o’clock.
That night, I went to bed about eleven o’clock. I think Brice did too but I guess he woke up about one o’clock in the morning. Mom, I think, had been awake. Brice woke me at one o’clock too. Marcie also sat with Dad and us. We thought that Dad didn’t have very long. It was Thursday, March 13.
Bruce arrived about 2:30 that morning. Bruce, Brice, Mom and I continued to sit with Dad. We talked to him and each other. I remember Bruce rubbing Mom’s feet and then tickling her. She giggled out loud and you could tell that Dad had heard her laugh. The hospice workers said that he would be able to hear us all the time. Being there at that time was very special and I will always remember it. Then, Marcie sat with him while we all tried to sleep.
When I went to bed that morning, all I could do was listen to Daddy’s breathing. It was very loud and getting short. He had medicine at four o’clock and twice more before 1:45 p.m.
I heard Lorna, Jonathan and Michael arrive at five o’clock and talk to Dad. Alan came about that time too with things that I needed from home. I think I went back to sleep for a couple more hours and then got up about seven o’clock.
Dad looked so tired. He was breathing so hard. He wasn’t nearly as peaceful as he had been on Wednesday. He was getting cold and clammy despite having a fever. His hands were clinched so tight that I could not straighten them out. I tried to do this because he had them so tight against his body and the oxygen hose that they were indented and purple. When I tried to straighten them, they would just clinch up again as soon as I let go. He was also getting purple blotches on his legs. The booklet told us this was an end sign. At this point, I could see why some people say it’s a relief when someone finally dies. We were so sad to see him like that. Tears came easy.
Kim returned that morning and called Teresa. His vitals were not good. His blood pressure was about 80 over 60 and she could hardly find his pulse. She had said for a couple of days that if we needed to tell him anything it was now the time. She really stressed it that day. That was about noon.
I tired to stay with him after that. I was afraid to go out of the room. Alan and Zac came soon after noon. Over the next hour, everyone gathered in his room. Gathered around him were Mom, Beth, Zac, Alan, Bruce, Brice, Marci, Kyle and Kelsey. Lorna, Jonathan, and Michael were running an errand. Mark and Olivia were on the highway coming from work.
A little before 1:30 that afternoon, Mom said that she needed to say a prayer but wanted to wait for the others to return. We urged her to go ahead. We told her that we could always say another later. She prayed.
It was a beautiful prayer asking the Lord to accept Dad into Heaven and to be with us. I know it was inspired. I wish I could remember every word.
Zac had been reading his Bible. He passed me the Bible and his Our Daily Bread showing me the Scripture for that day’s devotional. It was 2 Timothy 4:1-8.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (NIV)
The Our Daily Bread said:
In his book Spirit Life, Stuart Briscoe writes, “When I moved to the United States, I was impressed with the number of total strangers who visited my home to wish me well. They all sold insurance! One day my visitor was talking about the necessity to be prudent in the preparation for all possibilities. ‘If something should happen to you, Mr. Briscoe…’ he started to say, but I interrupted with, ‘Please don't say that. It upsets me.’ He looked totally bewildered and said, ‘I don't understand what I said to upset you.’ ‘Then I'll tell you,’ I replied. ‘It upsets me that you talk about [life's] only certainty as if it's a possibility. Death isn't a possibility, it's a certainty. You don't say “if,” you say “when,” whenever death is the subject. Then I added, ‘By the way, when something happens to you, what will really happen?’” The apostle Paul was very open about his death (2 Timothy 4:6). He knew that its sting had been removed because Christ paid sin's penalty on the cross (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). Death would give way to victory (v.54); he would fully experience Christ's righteousness; and he would be with Christ (2 Corinthians 5:8). Jesus gives that same confidence to all who trust Him as Savior and Lord. Dennis De Haan
At the bottom of the page, it said, “Only if we are ready to die are we ready to live.”
It was amazing. Brice said to read it out loud, so Zac did. I know everyone in the room was feeling God’s presence at that time. When Zac was finished, Dad’s breathing changed dramatically. You could definitely hear a different pattern. He had started to take his last few breaths.
Mark, Lorna and the boys were there now. Olivia was just minutes away. Others had left the room for just a few moments. Then, Dad’s breathing slowed even more. I remember Beth saying it would only be minutes. Mom called everyone back into the room.
I believe we saw his spirit rise out of him. His head went back. His chest rose. He groaned. He gave up his spirit. There were a few short reflexive breaths like a fish out of water. Then, he was gone.
It was 1:45 p.m., Thursday, March 13, 2003.
We cried and hugged and cried. I have never felt so much emotion in my life. I felt very faint. Alan got a cold cloth and some water for me. I remember Marcie and Lorna saying how much they loved him and our family. Brice said that he wondered what he had done to deserve such a wonderful family. Olivia arrived not long after and kissed her Poppy’s bald head.
Even as we waited for the nurse and funeral home to come, it seemed like I could still hear Daddy breathing. We had listened for his breath for so many days. The silence seemed strange.
Being with Dad his last few days and as he died, was the most memorable and difficult experience of my life. Yet, at the same time, it was an unbelievable blessing. It greatly strengthened my faith. It also made the next few days and the funeral easier to get through. I will never forget it.
I loved my Daddy. I miss him terribly but I know he is with Jesus. I know he is happy. That makes me happy. I will see him again someday.