Defining a happy death Print
Grand Mom
Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 -- 12:00 AM

Grand Mom by Audrey Mettel Fixmer

In my 81 years as a Catholic, I have been warned to "Pray for a Happy Death." Suddenly I seem to be in charge of one and I don't even know what it means. What is a "Happy Death"?

It is said that St. Joseph had one because he died in the arms of Jesus and Mary. I think that would be a hard one to pull off for the head of our family. We'd need a lot of space for me with our 10 kids: Rob, Tom, Tim, Elizabeth, Kathi, Kris, Gretchen, Patty, John, Mark, and their spouses. And the 18 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. That's a lot of arms!

The next stage

My husband, Bob, had to leave the Blackhawk Assisted Living where he had been lovingly tended for the past two and a half years. He needed more skilled nursing care as his body, along with his mind, began to deteriorate.

We were blessed to find Countryside in Jefferson, where the buildings are new, the grounds are landscaped, and the professional staff exudes a happy confidence in their skills and equipment. We took Bob there for a visit and he appeared eager to get in.

When a setback came (a small stroke?) we wondered if it might be too late to move him. Hospice was called in and we feared the worst as he lay there for two days in a near coma.

Our good old friend, Fr. Bill Nolan came on the morning of the move. With Kris and I in the room, he anointed Bob with the holy oils administering the Sacrament of the Healing. Bob seemed to understand, joining us in the Lord's Prayer.

Moments later the other daughters descended upon the room and began to remove pictures off the wall, clothes from the closets, and candy hidden everywhere. And books! Of course we had to furnish his new room with books, the key to his life. And then the ambulance was there and he was lifted into a wheelchair and they were off. Gretchen and I tearfully followed in her car to arrive behind the ambulance at Countryside, our next and final destination.

Love and good wishes

When Dad had been settled in his clean, crisp bed, the guys brought in the bigger items and hung his signature portrait (24x36) of Bob in the starring role of chief Blackhawk. Nurse Nancy took one look and squealed, "Oh, I was afraid of him! I was a little Indian kid in that pageant, and I thought he was a real Indian."

The girls arranged his closet, and suddenly Kathi's phone rang. It was our granddaughter calling from Hungary where she is spending nine months doing missionary work. She wanted to be with us, to see her Grandpa. Could she please talk to him?

Kathi said she didn't know if it would work, but she held the phone up to his ear. We could all hear Kristi squealing, bubbling over with her love and good wishes, and we watched as Bob, with eyes closed, spread a big smile across his face as tears streamed down his cheeks. And Kristi heard a chorus yell, "He's smiling, Kristi, he's smiling! He loves you!"

Faith and family

Nurse Nancy reported to me that Bob had a good night's sleep and when he awoke he announced, "I'm awake and I'm hungry. I'll have oatmeal, black coffee, and a glass of orange juice." When the doctor came in a few minutes later and asked if he could do anything for him, Bob said, "Yes, you can get me my breakfast."

It's been two weeks now and all of the kids have been home for extended visits. Rob was with his dad on one of the many interviews he had with staff. This one was a dietitian, and Bob was showing signs of exasperation. The woman said, "I just want to know what things you like to eat." And Bob replied irritably, "I'll tell you what I like to eat: Butterfingers!" (And so, of course, Rob went out and brought back a bag of Butterfingers.)

When Rob went to say goodbye before leaving for home in New Jersey, he found Dad unresponsive, but he told me later that the only time he brightened up was when he handed him the crucifix that I had found among his things at home. "That's the one!" he said. The other three in his room didn't count.

This week two granddaughters, Natalie and Lindsay, visited from North Carolina with their guitars. We were able to use one of the visitors' rooms at Countryside, and Bob sat teary eyed in his wheel chair, soaking it all up.

And another granddaughter, Bridget, brought in a three-ring binder, a reference book for the staff to use to identify "family," complete with photos of every child, grand, and great-grand. It's 46 pages long and each page is encased in plastic.

This is the Fixmer version of a "Happy Death," a marvelous bedlam of laughter and tears, faith and family.

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