Saturday, November 14, 2009

My Story of my father's Death: Version One

My father, Mike Stern, is given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He is 85 years old. He has diabetes, he has walked with pain for a number of years, his heart is not strong although he has not had a major heart attack. My father enjoys life a great deal. He loves to eat, he loves my mother and my sister and I and his granddaughter and grandson and great-grandchildren. He still likes to read, play bridge, work on the computer which he learned to do in his 70's, communicate with a few family members spread around the country and a few good friends from high school and college and even elementary school.

My father is not full of regrets about his life and he is not especially afraid to die. He is spritually oriented in a non-relgious sort of way. He believes whole-heartedly in God. He isn't sure what, if anything comes after death (at least he says this, but he may have some private beliefs which he is reluctant to share for fear that they might be questioned or belittled). He seems quite convinced that there is nothing bad likely to happen when he is dead other than never being able to eat at Galatoire's again and not seeing his great grandchildren grow up.

My father is grateful for the joy and accomplishments that he has experienced and he doesn't want to live forever. Most of my father's family has died--including his three brothers, and one of his two sisters, all three of his brothers-in-law, and all three of his sisters-in-law. Most of the men who were his best friends are dead. My father has already lost a fair amount of his competency and he can see that this is certainly going to get worse the longer he lives. He wants to die at home, he wants to be cared for as much as possible by his wife and children, with no more money spent on other kinds of care than has to be. He doesn't want painful and undignified medical procedures or long stays in the hospital.

My father was told he would have about six months to live. He had some moments of pain and some moments of fear. He went on playing bridge, enjoying food, bickering with my mother, making birthday cards on the computer. He had a lot of interest in and energy for planning his funeral and memorial service. My father involved me in this ways that represented enormous gifts to me. He asked that I invite the men's group I had been a part of for several years to help create a service for him. He requested that his ashes be scattered in a creek that he helped the men's group clean up one spring. He agreed to come to visit the site for this scattering and memorial service with the men's group during the time between his diagnosis and his death.

On a chilly Sunday afternoon, toward the end of winter, we carried him in his chair to the bank above the creek. He took a breath or two and said to the five men sitting around him, "well, men I am going to die, soon. Is there anything you want to ask me about what I feel?"

A few weeks later, a little more than six months after his diagnosis, a few days after his birthday dinner, he died at home, in his own bed. He had had little pain, no more stays in the hospital, having been attended to mostly by my mother and my sister and I (with help from hospice and some home care aides).

A few weeks after he died, about 35 people sat on the bank above the creek and eulogized and celebrated by father's life and shared some of the mourning of his death. Words from anciet Hebrew prayers and spiritual calls from Native American traidtions were chanted. Some hymns were played on a CD Player and their melodies floated out over the creek. People spoke of my father with love and affection and humor. Members of our family scattered spoonfuls of his ashes on the land and on the water. Some of them were poured into a hole we dug and we planted a young Dogwood on top of them. Many of us smiled and wept.

In this story, My father's dying is a beautiful, spritial, peaceful, and inspiring process. It is a time filled with love and caring, bravery and beauty. For me, there is a little sadness, immense gratefulness, a sense of having been loved and of having been loving. Acknowleding and being acknowledged. Responsibility lovingly and succcessfully carried out. Completion, resolution, closure, peace.

A good life come to a good end.


  1. Story well told, Harris.

    My father also died from pancreatic cancer. He was 67 and had been in declining health, but cancer was initially not considered apparently. He and my mother had gone on an annual trip in July but he was not feeling very the entire time. He was usually active and humorous, but my mother said that on the trip he was listless and didn't participate in events like he had in the past.

    After they got back home, he had tests done and the diagnosis was determined. The doctors said he was in advance stages and had only a very short while to live. One of my sisters arranged for him to go to a specialty clinic in Charlottesville, VA. They were optimistic when they left, but doctors there said there was really nothing more that could be done for him.

    When he got home he seemed resigned to give up. My father was very religious, had a great sense of humor, and was outgoing and loved people. In his illness he complained of a great deal of pain. He did not really want to be around people although his siblings all came in from out of state to see him. He was tired and a shadow of his former self. Throughout August he rapidly declined.

    At the beginning of September it had become too difficult to keep him at home. He went to the hospital where my mother and my siblings and I took turns staying with him 24 hours. Finally, on September 9, 1990 we could see that his passing was coming very soon and everybody was called in to be there. He was unconscious, drugged on Morphine, and passed away with all of us there.

    His illness came so suddenly that it really caught us all by surprise. His passing was sad and I miss him a great deal. I frequently dream about him. In my dreams, he doesn't ever speak but sometimes I hear him laugh. When I awaken from these dreams I always feel a strong sense of well-being, happiness, and optimism.


  2. Lovely, sad, emotionally evoking posts. Thank you for sharing.

    Lee sent me over to check you out...I'll be back. I'm a bit choked up. Thinking about the mortality of the people you love can do that.