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“It’s like I am winding down. And you can’t keep winding down forever without coming to the end,” he told me a few days later.”
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Nephew Brian has heard it often as we playfully, yet seriously tell him – “Brian, as the only grandson, with the Longenecker name, your job is to get married and produce a boy-child to carry on the Harold Longenecker branch of Grandpa Sam Longenecker’s tree!
“Grandpa, you can’t go running off to heaven before I have a child with the Longenecker name” he admonishes his much-loved Grandpa on his wedding day.” Within 18 months, his updated instructions include that Grandpa must wait till he meets Caleb Gordon Longenecker who is due to be born in June of this year.
Earlier in the year, Aunt Carol, Gordon’s wife (and Brian’s mom) makes the decision to come to our Thanksgiving Family weekend with our children, Scott, Gerald and Todd and their families. “I just know we need to come and we shouldn’t wait. Brian will see his cousins and their families. Becca can experience being a Longenecker.” Most of all, Brian can’t wait to introduce Caleb to Grandpa, Caleb’s Great Grandpa.
And so, it happens. For few days at Thanksgiving, we had twenty-one people around our table, from age six months to eighty-six.
It’s ten days later and he’s sleeping till 10:00 some mornings. It is no surprise. He is not used to the excitement and flurry of activity the weekend has brought. In the past months, we have noticed gradual, subtle changes. The nurse who visits him monthly also notices.
It is harder for him to get up and down steps. For that reason, we don’t take him to Scott and Jill’s anymore. They live in a second-floor condo with a long flight of steps. The last time we visited, Galen went down the steps in front of him and I was in back. We both realized if he started to fall, they would both tumble down these steps and neither of us could stop him.
Recently Dad and I went to our usual Thursday afternoon spot – “Steak and Shake.” As we walk up to the door, Don, one of the regular servers opens the door for us, making room for dad’s walker. (I always wonder – a middle aged man working at “Steak and Shake” every afternoon – I imagine there is a story there somewhere.) We turn the corner and take the nearest table – it’s ours now, every Thursday afternoon.
Don knows what we want but he always asks, “What will you have today?” He knows Dad is going to ask for butter pecan ice cream every week. Every week Dad is surprised they don’t have it. Don will suggest “vanilla with some fudge sauce”. That, plus a cup of black coffee completes the order. Don also knows I will want a caffeine-free diet coke with a “very small” dip of ice cream – a hint of decadence that way.
Our order arrives and the stories start – sometimes because he is remembering, sometimes because I ask questions. Most I have heard before. I enjoy hearing them again. It is good for him to remember and review his life.
I show him pics of his great grandchildren on Facebook including Oliver from New Zealand, (Gordon’s first grandchild, born six weeks before Caleb) and tell of their escapades. If there is not a new story, I tell an old one. That’s the only good thing I can think of about memory loss. You get to tell the same stories again and again and he gets to enjoy them again and again.
There’s a question on my mind today. I don’t want to ask because I am afraid of his answer, but I need to know. “Dad, are you OK over there by yourself. Are you overwhelmed or too lonely?”
“No, I am fine. I like my room. It’s my house. It works because you are close by.”
“If that changes, you need to let me know if I don’t notice it.” He assures me he will. I am relieved. I am not ready for the next step, which will be him moving in with us.
The conversation continues as he seems to be gathering his thoughts; “I don’t know how to say this, except to . . . just say it . . .” More silence. I can tell he’s not done yet with what he has to say. I wait.
“I just think I don’t have long for this life.”
“I do see your energy level has changed.”
After a few more quiet moments he adds: “I have been thinking about our life. God called us (I know it was God, we didn’t just make this stuff up). And we did what He asked us to do. We went where He asked us to go. And as far as we knew, we were the people He asked us to be. I don’t look back at my life with regrets, wondering how in the world we got into that mess.”
“It’s like I am winding down. And you can’t keep winding down forever without coming to the end. Now, understand, I don’t feel bad. I don’t have pain. I sleep well. My only problem is I don’t want to sleep all the time and then not sleep at night, but so far that has not happened. I am OK. “
“Dad, a couple months ago you were depressed” (I don’t remind him, he thought he was maybe getting ready to die and full of anxiety). “I don’t see that this time. I am not sensing you think we need to go to the Doctor. What do you think?” Usually when he is concerned about his health, he gets anxious and wants to go to the doctor right away.
“No, I don’t want to do that. There is nothing really wrong – just that things are slowing down.”
“Dad, my prayer for you is you would just go to sleep some night and wake up in heaven.”
This conversation is without anxiety on his part, and I too am calm. He is at peace. As if to further allay any fears I might have he adds “I’m not saying I am going to die tomorrow, but then I don’t want to put things off either.”
The last part surprises me. He has never talked like this before, nor does he have a big list of things to do that I know of. The one thing we have talked most about is his desire to visit his friends at Morton and RHMA again. I tell him I will schedule that trip to Morton to visit old friends.
In the coming weeks, he tells me again, “I don’t think I’ll die anytime too soon, but when I do, I think I’ll just go to sleep and wake up in heaven.” (I smile to myself and wonder where he got that idea.) He talks more often of mother and has an increased longing to be with her.
After a while, he seems to have dismissed that conversation if he remembers it at all. The other day, he tells me how good he is feeling. I remind him he was not feeling so perky a few weeks ago.
“I’m feeling better now.” Maybe he is reassuring himself as well as me.
I don’t know what this means as to timing. I treasure this conversation, grateful for a glimpse into his thinking. It’s who he is and what he feels about himself, and I want to remember it.
The trip to visit old friends is now planned for January 10th. The people at the RHMA office are planning a lunch with half a dozen of his old friends. We’ll stay overnight and stop in on a couple of others he wants to see.
He remains kind, sweet, grateful and loving. There are more Thursdays at “Steak and Shake,” asking for butter pecan ice cream, settling for vanilla with fudge syrup and moments to savor with my dad.
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(I relay this conversation to Aunt Carol. “Wow just Wow. I knew we should come, but I didn’t see how we’d pay for it. I am glad we did.”
Three months later in March 2013, he fell in his room, breaking his hip. He moved in with us for the next fifteen months as he continued the slow final “wind down.”)
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Dear Reader, perhaps there is a story you treasure about your children’s grandparents, an uncle or aunt. Tell them. The older I get, the more I love the stories of family members I didn’t know well, or never met. I wrote this and shared it with my children in an email, December 2012 – found it again this month and decided to share it here. Many of my friends knew my Dad and will love this peek into his processing at the end of his life.
Oh, and I survived my second knee replacement. I am relieved I only have two knees (now I just need the first one lasts as long as the rest of me does)