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Glen's Story: A Last Christmas

During the Christmas season that would turn out to be Dad’s last, our extended family gathered as usual for its Christmas celebration – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and dogs with the eighty-five year old patriarch and our mother at the heart of it all. In many respects the festivities looked similar to those we had shared the year before, and the year before that, every year for as long as the young ones could remember – we ate heaping plates of delicious food, children chased each other through the house, dogs scratched at the door, and adult conversations overlapped and intertwined.

Yet, everyone old enough to talk knew that this Christmas was different. Dad was dying –his colon cancer had reappeared the past summer and additional treatment was not stopping its relentless advance. There was an air of apprehension and sadness mixed with the laughter and jollity of the occasion. After the last gift had been given, we acknowledged this heaviness openly.

Looking at Dad, I said something about the best gifts being those you can’t buy – the gift of love within families, the gift that each person in a family is to the others. Speaking on behalf of the whole family, I expressed the family’s gratitude for the gift Dad was to us. Then my younger brother went to the piano and together we sang a hymn that was one of Dad’s favourites – a hymn that he and Mom had sung with us when we were small.

After singing the whole family gathered round Dad in a gentle crush and laying hands on him or on someone near him, we spoke together this old Gaelic blessing:

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the watching shepherds to you.
Deep peace of the Son of Peace to you.

Tears wet the cheeks of many in the circle. Yet, the room was strangely peaceful. Even the youngest children and the dogs lying on the carpet seemed to sense the tenderness and solemnity of the moment. Dad looked at his family and bravely said, “I’m not afraid to die.” Then as his voice caught and fresh tears filled his eyes, he added, “I just don’t want to leave you.”

About six months after our Christmas celebration, Dad was nearing the end. His physical symptoms and needs were well cared for by the palliative care team that brought daily services to the suite where he and Mom lived. However, his body was exhausted, frail and unable to use nourishment. He was asleep more than awake. He spent his nights in his bed, his days on the couch in the living room. His children and their partners were nearby providing care for him and Mom.

Dad said he wanted to see his children and their partners together. We gathered a day or two later. With great effort he got up from the couch and sat in his favourite chair, a prayer shawl over his shoulders to ward off the chill that seemed to be ever with him. He told my sister where to find a collection of notes that he had written. When all was ready, he explained that he had not planned for us to have the notes until after his death, but that he had changed his mind. Then with assistance from my sister, he began to read them.

There was a note for each of the nine people in the circle – Mom, his three children and their partners, the wife of my brother who had died decades earlier and her second husband. With each note Dad expressed his appreciation for the intended receiver and described how his relationship with that person had enriched his life. With each note came a gift – something of Dad’s that symbolized what the person meant to him – a figurine of a drummer boy for one, a soapstone carving for another, a nested doll for a third, a sculpture of a soaring bird for a fourth, his prayer shawl to Mom, and so on. In this way he gave each of us a personalized blessing and a powerful memento for the days ahead when he would be no longer with us.

When the ritual was done, Dad was exhausted and ready to go to bed. He did not get out of bed again and died several days later.