Ghosts in the Corridor
"There are Ghosts in the Corridor," words my father whispered to me during a visit to the ER two weeks before he passed away. I have longed to see the words, Ghosts in the Corridor in print. Alas, here they are. I thought at the time that our family experience of taking care of my father at the end of his life would have made a great Irish play. All of his 9 surviving children, his beloved wife, and a smattering of grandchildren coming to gather together under the same roof, at his death bed to help care for him. There were all of the assorted elements of an Irish play; tragedy, comedy, drama, melancholy, and love all cobbled together. It had to be written by an Irish writer who understood all of the elements at play. I guess I was going to be that Irish writer. I didn’t quite understand at the time how I longed to express what those words and this experience meant to me or think that I would be the one telling this story. Had I known, I Ruthie and Frankie would have taken better notes!
When I look at this picture of my parents it exudes young love. It is filled with their hopes and dreams. I was their 10th child. I was born 12+ years after this picture was taken. Until recently, I had never even seen this picture. It speaks volumes to me on how their love began. I have it framed and on my mantle.
When I was born they were still in love, but it wasn't as obvious. They were exhausted. They were working to make ends meet and caring for many children. They had both experienced great loss and daily challenges throughout their married lives. I believe that everything shapes us and when you are children you are not always privy to or aware of all of the pieces of your parent's stories.
This is a story about my parents meeting, falling in love, and in the end having to let it all go. They have both passed away now and I know that they are always with me. I know both of my parents and many others I have loved and lost are on my team of helpers in heaven. They are assisting me and encouraging me to continue writing this story as well as many other stories. I can feel the immense love from them and others just on the other side of the veil between this life and the next.
Writing has been a relatively new vocation for me. Finally sitting down and writing these words has been a healing and cathartic process. It has given me time to truly see, honor, and appreciate the gifts, sacrifices, and love my parents had for each other and for all of us. I have always had the ability to tell a story with meaning, purpose, humor, tragedy, love, and truth. Telling a story verbally and writing it down have been two very distinctly different things in my world.
If and when any emotions came up, and they have, I had to feel them and keep asking the question, "What am I feeling? What is this trying to teach me?" "Is there anything that can be healed in me or anyone else from me telling this story?" I have come to know that thoughts, feelings, words, and emotions are very powerful. They are energy in motion. This is how energy healing works. When you feel and honor your emotions you can transform them with forgiveness, gratitude, and love. It is not easy, but extremely healing.
I have been on a spiritual journey my entire life. I didn’t always realize that fact, but as I sit here in my office and write out these words, it is true. Everything is sacred. We all are on a spiritual journey back to God, back to oneness, and remembering our divine connection to everything in the universe. We are here to experience life and lessons here on school room earth. There were many lessons for me to learn whilst growing up when, how and with whom, I grew up alongside.
According to the 12 Archangels' teachings and working with Belinda Womack author of Lessons from the 12 Archangels, these are the parents I chose to have before I incarnated into this precious life of mine. They gave me their DNA and brought with them important lessons to teach me. I signed up to learn from them. Lessons that only they could offer me. I also signed up to learn all of the lessons I needed to learn having to grow up with 11 siblings in an extremely humble and chaotic environment. I truly have asked several times, "I chose this?"
There are no accidents in life. Your soul is running the show and has chosen this life and all of the challenges or as I have learned to call them, "opportunities in disguise for growth." We are being invited moment by moment to transform these challenges of fear, lack, humility, unworthiness, difficult relationships, whatever challenges you may face in your life, all are teachings and can be transformed back into love. It has taken me years to understand these challenges I experienced growing up were really opportunities for growth. This large, Irish, Catholic, tribe has offered me many, many, many, many, opportunities. More than I can count.
My father, Alphonsus Philomena O'Brien. His nickname in Ireland was Phoncie. When he came to America he changed it to Frank. I love the name Phoncie and actually prefer it to Frank. It is softer and more Irish. But he was Frank and it was quite fitting when it came to his demeanor. If you are thinking that Philomena is a woman’s name, you would be correct with your assumption. His grandmother apparently loved the name and he was saddled with it forever. Professionally he went by A.P. “Frank” O’Brien. Dad was the middle child out of 5 children. Born August 2, 1926 in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland to Joseph and Mary O'Brien. I never met my O'Brien grandparents.
My mother was born at home on the family farm in Lincoln Township, Dallas County, Iowa. Her name was Ruth Elaine Noland and she was the eldest child of Reverend Garold Bartley Noland and Lura Summerson Noland, born January 19, 1930. She was one of four children, three girls and one boy. One of my great uncles lived in this farm house when I was older. A farm house we visited a few times a year growing up. My great uncles, brothers of my maternal grandmother were the only uncles I knew growing up. They both were farmers and lived about a 1/4 of mile from each other. My grandparents had moved to Arizona from Iowa the year I was born and my grandfather passed away when I was 3. My maternal grandmother was the only grandparent I knew.
My father, Phoncie emigrated to the United States in1948 from London, England. He was born and raised in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. He left his homeland of Ireland at the age of 20 years old and went to work in a hotel in London as a bellhop for one year. When I went to London in 1996, nearly 50 years later, the hotel where he worked was still there. I thought that was remarkable.
He worked tirelessly, saved his tips and wages, and was able to secure the needed funds for his passage on a ship bound for America named, The Queen Elizabeth. I have a photocopy of the ship's manifesto that one of my older sisters researched and obtained a copy of. Holding this manifesto and seeing his name on it fills me with pride, a deep respect and way too many unanswered questions I wished I had asked him.
When I was in my second year of college, I had the opportunity to live in Guadalajara, Mexico and to be fully immersed into a foreign country, language, and culture. We lived with a Mexican family, a few friends and students from my university, and a few students from across the world. We had four hours of Spanish and 1 hour of cultural studies every day Monday - Friday. It gave me great insight and a small peek into what it must have been like for my father to leave his country of origin, his culture and his family.
I was only living in another country for three months. I can't fathom how difficult it must have been for him to literally leave everything behind except for the clothes on his back, a few meager belongings, and begin a new life in a foreign country. He would not be able financially to return to Ireland until he was in his late 50's. He never did see his parents or two of his siblings alive again.
Ireland was a poor country with political and religious unrest and there were not many opportunities available to him. He grew up in extreme poverty. He bought me a copy of Angela’s Ashes when it first came out. If you are not familiar with it, it is a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize winning book written by Irish author Frank McCourt. It is his memoir of growing up in extreme poverty in Limerick, Ireland. Dad purchased the book for me, but could not even bring himself to read it because it felt too close to his own experience of growing up in Ireland.
He lived a similar story. He didn't need to read about it. I read it and once again I found a new and deeper compassionate understanding for how terribly difficult his life must have been in Ireland. I thought we were poor growing up and it truly gave me a new perspective on poverty. His desire for a better life was strong and unwavering. After all, he was told and believed wholeheartedly, that the streets in America were paved with gold. Had he not made the decision to leave Ireland my siblings and I would not be here.
He was courageous to leave all he had known in search of a better life. When I was in advertising, my first job out of college, my father would come to Minneapolis on sales calls and we would meet for lunch. I was given the opportunity to get to know him on a whole different level. It was a gift. He was a different person than the one I knew growing up. Growing up he was very strict. He worked all of the time to provide a life for all of us. When he was home he was trying to contain all of the stress and chaos that can comes from providing for and raising a large family.
He was not a very patient father. I was very shy and afraid to ever get into any trouble. But as an adult I was able to get to know him, witness the Irish charm, sense of humor, and see his generous heart. Not everyone who has lived a challenging childhood has the opportunity to see their parents in a different light. I am grateful that I did get to see more of who he was at his core.
He shared more of his philosophy on life and thoughts with me. When he spoke of leaving Ireland he said, “It was because of my youthful innocence and naivety, my beliefs and dreams for a better life that I was able to leave Ireland. I thought I was invincible. I still can’t fathom sometimes that I was able to climb aboard a ship for America when I was literally just a kid. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to take that leap of faith and make that same choice as an older man. When you are young and inexperienced you don’t know any better or can truly understand the challenges you might encounter in a foreign land. I would not have lived as long of a life had I stayed in Ireland. I know that with100% certainty.”
A chance encounter with an American soldier stationed in Ireland changed the course of dad's life. Delmer Hendricks was an extremely kind and generous American soldier from the heartland of America. Delmer was stationed in Northern Ireland during WWII. Delmer and other American soldiers played baseball in the lane near my father’s childhood home. My father was intrigued by these Americans. He and Delmer became fast friends and together they dreamed into reality a plan for my father to emigrate.
Delmer’s family lived in Des Moines, Iowa. His family sponsored my father so he could leave his war-torn and impoverished country and come to America. The land of opportunity. My father's belief in new possibilities with the support from this American friend and his family helped my father's dream come to fruition.
The Hendricks family welcomed my father with open arms. He had made a new family in America. They helped him gain employment and gave him shelter in this new land. He was forever grateful for their generosity, hospitality, and welcoming him into their family. He was on his way. He and Delmer became as close as brothers. Delmer introduced my father to the tire and oil industry and he gained employment that would shape most of his future career choices.
My father found out rather quickly that the streets of America were not paved in gold. There was great prejudice towards immigrants and my father did not escape what many immigrants before him and after him have experienced in this country. He was an Irish immigrant. He saw signs that said, Irish need not apply. Chants of, “Get the potatoes out of your mouth when you talk. You’re in America now, Mick!”
My father learned very quickly to assimilate into the American culture and he tried to lose his Irish brogue as fast as possible. I think that maybe this is why I do not know many stories of his life growing up in Ireland and when he first came to America. He had to lose who he was in order to fit in if he wanted to survive. He did not move into an area that was filled with Irish immigrants or come with his parents and siblings. He was an immigrant in a foreign land. He became an American Citizen and a very proud one indeed. I am grateful that his brogue and some of his phrasing of words never completely vanished from his speech.
There are no coincidences in life and as fate would have it, my father ended up in hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. He became quite ill and was admitted into hospital. The doctor had found a growth of skin on his right kidney and he needed surgery to have it removed. My mother, Ruth Elaine Noland, was an 18 year old nursing student at the time and doing her nursing training in this very hospital.
My father was a handsome 21 year old Irish Catholic immigrant with lots of dark, curly hair, green eyes, and was full of charisma and charm. My mother was a very innocent, beautiful 18 year old brunette, with hazel eyes, from a small town in Iowa. She was supposed to give this handsome young man a sponge bath. He boasted to me on one occasion, “I told her I would have none of that!” I do not have any of the details of this chance encounter except for the two were destined to meet and fall in love no matter how vastly different they were...their worlds collided. It happened fast.
I would like to believe she could not resist his Irish brogue, handsome face and irresistible charm. I am sure she fell hard and fast for this wandering young soul from across the world. I can’t imagine there were too many like my father especially not in rural Iowa. My father fell in love just as hard and fast with this beautiful, intelligent, and innocent young nurse. I do know that my mother had a strong faith in God, had family stability, and a genuine kindness that was part of her allure for my father. She was very compassionate about the hardships my father had endured in his young life.
I do not know how much time had passed from the time they met at the hospital and when they started dating. But they dated, they fell in love and my mother became pregnant. Their lives were changed forever. Life was not easy for them. Ever.
To make matters just a tad more complicated, my mother was the eldest daughter of a Methodist Minister. She was a star in her family, attending college, and my mother was very cherished. She had been brought up in a sheltered and conservative environment. When my mother’s pregnancy was revealed to her parents, as you can imagine, it did not go well. Her father told her that she would have 10 children and her life would be ruined by marrying this Irish Catholic.
These powerfully negative words I am sure wounded her deeply and ended up being a driving force in her life from that moment on. My mother was determined to prove her father wrong. She had 12 children and her life was extremely challenging, but she never allowed it to become ruined. My mother told me that her parents were quite upset with her and were not going to attend the wedding at the Catholic Church. But in the end, they did attend the wedding.
My grandparents sat in the front row of the church and attended the wedding on February 5, 1949. They supported my parents throughout their lives. I know that this was not the dream life they had imagined for my mother. They did not shun her or send her away. They loved her and embraced my father and all of their children as best as they could given their stern,
undemonstrative, and conservative ways.
My Irish father was able to express himself with emotion, drama, and imagination in his own unique way. He could speak quite lyrically, passionately, and quite candidly, about life, who he loved, and who he despised...he rarely held back. He was also a very proud man and loved being the center of attention. He taught me my first lessons in mindfulness, “mind your step, mind your manners, mind...” He always reminded us to go to the biffy before we went to bed so we didn't piddle the bed! I became quite fond of the recognizable Irish lilt to his speech and accent. I noticed it most often when he lectured at church or during one of the many community theater plays he starred in.
My mother was more reserved, quieter with her words, actions, desires, and was not as demonstrative as my father. She was kind, considerate, and was always concerned with what would the neighbors or others think about our behavior, manners, and appearance. My father showed his anger and drama and my mother was more compassionate but she perfected the silent treatment when things were upsetting to her. We always knew where we stood in the family from both parents even though they chose different ways to express their displeasure.
My mother became a very devout Catholic. The Catholic Church was against birth control and my mother followed along with the rules of the church. She did quit nursing school and got married and had a total of 12 children. But she never gave up on herself or her dream.
She went to work outside of the home when I was 10 years old and in the 5th grade. She was a cook at the local truck stop restaurant and worked nights. She also started to take classes at the local college during the day. When I was in high school she graduated from college. She had tucked that dream of hers of becoming a nurse into her back pocket and never gave up on it or herself. It may have taken her many years to finish what she had started as a young woman to accomplish, but with years of hard work and determination, she did it. She raised 12 children. She survived stage 4 breast cancer. She never gave up her dream of becoming a nurse and she had not ruined her life. She spent a life-time proving her father wrong.
She became a very dedicated nurse who worked the night shift and many holidays. She was loved by her coworkers, her patients and her patients' families alike. Everyone loved my mother for her kindness, dedication, and tireless service to the church, the hospital, and her family. She was indeed a martyr in every sense of the word. My mother was a hard act to follow. She literally could fall asleep standing up because she believed she had to do it all and never wanted to miss out on anything.
My parents were meant to be together and to share and teach each other how the other half lived. I am a mixture of both of my parents. Both parents shared gifts and challenges with us. I embrace my Irish roots from my father and being part of the first generation of O'Brien's. I also embrace my Irish/English roots via our Iowa farming lineage from my mother.
I have a bit of the dreamy wanderlust and want for adventure that brought my father to America. There is a deep part of me that resides in the Celtic wisdom of mystical spirituality and love for life and nature. I also possess both parent's strong love for family, community, determination, and their unwavering faith. They both were filled with gratitude that they could provide for their large family albeit humbly...no frills, no luxuries, but we were always fed, sheltered, cleaned, pressed and educated. My parents were strong, disciplined, intelligent, proud, and very determined people despite their teeny, tiny, stature.
The older my parents got the more they seemed to shrink. They were so little, I would often tell them I wished that I could pick them up and put them in my purse and carry them around to take care of them. Life and it's many challenges took a toll on my parents. My mother had survived stage 4 breast cancer when I was 15. They grieved the loss of three of their children and a son-in-law. All were in the prime of their lives. Mom was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that makes little holes in your bones. She had fallen because a tumor had made her bones very weak in the hip and top of her leg. She had survived cancer twice in her life. They both had survived many challenges together.
My father, now in his late 80's had been experiencing weakness in his legs and the level of energy he had was declining. He always enjoyed running, walking, and lifting weights to keep his body healthy and moving. It was quite upsetting to him to feel so weak and that coupled with his ever-increasing grief was becoming unbearable. He finally went to the Mayo Clinic to get some answers.
He was diagnosed with kidney cancer at the Mayo clinic Tuesday, June 3, 2014. I was with him when he was given that dire diagnosis. A few sisters, my mother and my father sat there in the tiny examination room at the Mayo Clinic and listened to the doctor tell him he had kidney cancer. The doctor went on to explain to us the results of the positron emission tomography (PET) scan. PET scans detect diseases like cancer, heart disease, and brain disorders. Dad’s scan was lit up like a Christmas tree and showed us his body was filled with cancer.
We found out that it had originated in his kidneys. The thing that brought my parents together over 60+ years ago would separate them in the end...his kidneys. The wind had been taken from my father’s sails as he tiredly exclaimed to the doctor and all of us, “God damn it. I thought I was going to get out of this life without ever having cancer.” He had quit smoking 30 years prior to this diagnosis. Had he not quit smoking it may very well have taken his life much earlier than at 87 years of age.
It was now two days later on Thursday, June 5 and he had become quite ill, very weak and unable to control his bodily functions. I am sure that his mind had become consumed by the cancer diagnosis, too. He never spoke of these thoughts to me personally, but he did tell my mom that he was not going to be around for very much longer. My mother brought him to the Emergency Room. I drove down from Minneapolis to join them in the ER and help out in any way that I could.
When you have the ability to sense as I do, that someone you love is not long for this world, you have the opportunity and invitation to witness and experience this sacred time between life and death. You can help usher them into the next life. But in all honesty, I have come to realize that we can treat all time between life and death as sacred. It is how I have chosen to live my life.
He was quite distraught that I was witnessing him in all of his human frailty and inability to control what was happening to him. Being a parent myself, I understood where my father was coming from and his perspective of a parent wanting to protect their child. I tried to reassure him that I was there to help and none of it mattered. I had seen a lot in my life thus far and I was ok and I wanted to help him and comfort him in any way I could. I knew that our time together was running out. I knew that I could not save him, but I could be there to help and hopefully help ease his mind.
While we were waiting for results of the tests they had done to come back from the lab, my father looked very wearily into my eyes as he held on tightly to my hand, and said to me, "Angela, there are ghosts in the corridor." It was profound. It was his Irish mystical soul speaking to me and at that very moment in time he was seeing beyond this world. He was beginning to walk between both the physical and the spiritual worlds. The light in a dying person’s eyes becomes more translucent and you become more aware of those who have gone before us. His words have stayed with me. The words continue to echo to the depth of my very own soul.
I have always tried to make light of any given situation with a little humor and lightness. I exclaimed, “You are right dad, there are ghosts in the corridor, and we are quite possibly related to all of them!” We shared a wee laugh, but down deep we both knew his time was nearing the end and he would once again be reunited with his children, siblings, parents and friends who passed away before he did. We continued to hold hands and I would glance occasionally out into the corridor to see into that long passageway to see if I could see, feel, know, and sense any ghosts loitering out there. My father was beginning to see, know, feel and experience ghosts or spirits of his loved ones coming to visit him and his spiritual sight was coming more clearly into focus.
I was trying to hold back on the truth we both felt. He had lost his parents, most of his siblings, many friends, three children and a son-in-law. He had another son-in-law aged 57 who was also currently struggling with kidney cancer at this same time. He told me he could not handle losing anyone else and he would not be sticking around to witness any more loss, truer words may never have been spoken.
The level of bacterial infection in my father’s lab test results was extremely high. We, as a family needed to make some decisions. I was grateful that the doctor was very truthful and straightforward with us. He looked at my mom and all of us, but he recognized my sister as a nurse he had worked with and he told us the God’s honest truth. They could keep treating this and try chemotherapy that could possibly prolong his life, but the quality of his remaining time would not be great. Chemotherapy and its side effects would not cure him. The illness, discomfort, and increased suffering would just be prolonged. Or the other choice was to not treat it and let nature take its course. Dad wanted to live and die on his terms and enjoy the time remaining as best he could. We, as a family, chose to not treat the illness.
My father was in the hospital for a week holding court with all of us, and all of his remaining friends that had stopped by to visit and say, "goodbye." The hospital staff was wonderful and enjoyed the conversations, the storytelling, the celebration, and bantering of this large family gathering at the bed of our father. As I have said before, my father loved being the center of attention. We may have even shared a gin and tonic with him for the road he was traveling.
He was filled with his Irish charm and pride. He spoke freely about his opinion, thoughts, his life and his love for his family. There is a beautiful opportunity when you are near the end of your life and are still able to speak, to heal parts of your life and relationships if you so choose. I came to understand this healing as extremely important. It does not save the life, but there is definitely an opportunity to bring much needed healing.
My father and I did not agree on many things. He could be very loving and he could be brutally honest with his words and sometimes quite cutting. He spoke before he thought of how it might make someone feel. Whatever filter my father had was long gone. He was brought up in a time where he believed he was the, "king of his castle," and my mother waited on him. He had softened somewhat after all of the years from life's challenges and raising so many outspoken children. All that being said, he still had the ability to love us with his whole heart. As he got older it was much easier for him to tell us how much we were loved and appreciated. I do miss his undeniable love for me and all of us.
My husband and son, Sean, were visiting the hospital and saying their, “goodbyes,” because they needed to go to Chicago for work. My father pulled my son in close and said, “follow that man (my husband) to the end of time and he will show you the way.” I didn’t hear this conversation. My son shared that with my husband when he wrote it on his Father’s Day card. My father's parting words to my son still bring me to tears.
Dad was an actor on the community theater stage and the stage of life. He was an orator in church and at times he was the choir director. He was a singer and very proud of it. The respiratory therapist was checking on him one day while in hospital that last week and he was singing. She said, “You have a beautiful singing voice.” He responded quite seriously with, “I know I do!” Without skipping a beat, I found myself saying “and he is very modest, too!” Always trying to lift up and lighten up the situation at hand. We all laughed.
He was a storyteller. He was a dreamer. He was funny. If you have ever been a patient in hospital, every staff person who comes into the room to do any kind of procedure or a nurse giving medications, they are obligated to ask the patient what their name and date of birth is. My father got so fed up with their questions he said, “God dammit, could someone please write that down. I am sick of answering the same questions all of the time.” He thought they kept asking him because they wanted to know if he had lost his mind…he was there to tell them he most certainly had not!
Coming from an extremely humble and impoverished life in Ireland, he was grateful for his simple life. He always had food on the table and relished telling you about his meals in detail. Our home was humble, but he was very proud of it and for having a roof over his head. His life here was very modest, but he was so proud and grateful for all he had accomplished. He loved his family and could speak freely of his love from his heart. He believed in the mystical powers of the universe, fairies, angels, spirits, all from his Irish heritage and the Celtic wisdom of his culture. I loved that about him and I love that I have those beliefs running through my veins as well. There is nothing wrong with believing in miracles, magic, and angelic beings...just ask me!
The last night my father stayed in the hospital, I stayed overnight too, along with my mother. I did not sleep well. They both snored and had probably both suffered from sleep apnea. When I stayed with my parents overnight in the hospital, I had a tendency to sleep with one eye open just in case one of them stopped breathing. My heart and mind were so weary and exhausted. My thoughts had become entangled with prayers, affirmations and the memories of my life all coalescing into a dreamy fog filled fatigue. Did someone stop breathing? I would sit up and listen intently for several minutes from across the room where I was uncomfortably perched on a tiny, uncomfortable, couch. Whew, everyone was still breathing. Good. I lay my worn out self and weary head back down on the stiff hospital issued pillow and tried once again to fall asleep.
At one point during this long sleepless and restless night, I recalled seeing my father’s running shoes near his bed. It struck a chord deeply in me and I started to cry softly to myself. I cried for all the times we went running together and would never experience again. I cried because he would never wear those shoes again. The simplest things in life that can transform you so profoundly like a pair of running shoes. Running shoes saved his life. Now his current pair of running shoes sat neatly tucked under his hospital bed and their services were no longer required. It sticks in my mind that the power that one pair of running shoes had in his life and in my own. A symbol of something we shared and that left me bereft and in a puddle of tears. Underneath it all was where the truth of the matter was...he was dying.
We all made it through the night in the hospital. No one died. Had I dreamt of God gracefully and peacefully ushering my parents together from this world to the next at the same time as they held hands in their sleep...mom in her chair next to his hospital bed? Perhaps it was a momentary wish I had held. I wished that I could spare them and free them from the pain and grief they had both shared after losing three of their children and the grief that was yet to come when one of them left this physical world.
It didn’t happen that night. I was grateful to have more time with each of them. Surrender. Surrender. Surrender. It’s all out of my control. As often as I question life and why things happen the way they do; I do believe that there is a greater divine plan. We just don’t know what it is. I do know that grief and a breaking heart allows more light and love to flow in. The duality of love and loss. You can’t feel one without having felt the other.
My father returned home after a week in hospital. He would be at home with hospice care. “Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.” We all met with the hospice care team to get educated on how hospice worked. He wanted to die with dignity at home. My 84 year old mother, the retired nurse, her remaining 9 children, and some grandchildren gathered at my parent’s home from around the country. We came together to care for our dying father around the clock for however long it took. My mom and one sister had years of nursing experience, we all knew how to take care of people, and a few nieces had nursing assistant experience...all of the pieces to this unknown puzzle will come together somehow. All helped ease the uncertainty in the air as to what was yet to unfold.
Imagine for a moment, what it would be like to be back in your small, crowded, childhood home and taking care of a dying parent. All of my siblings and I came together to do just that. Crazy? Definitely. Meaningful, extremely important, tumultuous at times, loving at other times, very Irish experience indeed. We had all of the elements of exhaustion both physical and emotional, tragedy, grief, tears, laughter, arguments and the romantic notions that we would experience spiritual epiphanies coming from the mouth of our dying father. Amazingly enough there were a few of those.
A crazy thing happens once you walk through the threshold to your childhood home and you are surrounded by your siblings and parents. You all magically and sometimes tragically turn back into children. We are all grown and have lives, careers, and families of our own, but you walk into that childhood home and it gets blurry and old dramas that were never reconciled once again make their appearance and not always at the most opportune time. There is another opportunity in disguise for growth and reconciliation. You are all waiting for the inevitable to happen and we are perched on the precipice of the life and death and it brings out many side stories filled with their own drama. Anything and everything can happen. And it did.
We put a hospital bed in the dining room where the table and chairs were taken away and stored temporarily in the garage. When someone is in hospice at home you are required to take meticulous notes, record doses, and times when medications were given to the patient. It was challenging at times. The tiny printing on the medication bottles, the syringes and their tiny measuring lines, our exhaustion, and none of us were youngsters and all had ageing eyes and bifocal lenses. It was a little tricky. Especially in the middle of the night with just a little light shining from a lamp in the corner where all of the medical supplies were staged at the ready. We would carefully and quietly measure out and administer the morphine to dad while trying to not disturb the others sleeping on sofas mere feet away in the adjoining room.
We took turns throughout the night and daytime to take care of dad. We did not all agree on how to care for him. The situation at times was tenuous. I am sure you can only imagine what it could be like with 7 sisters and a few nieces all with their own opinions and ideas. It is unpredictable, imperfect, irrational, complicated, at times passive/aggressive, and all of it wrapped in grief. All so very Irish. But we managed for the greatest good for all concerned.
I have always known how to step back from a situation that is going sideways. I learned when I needed to step away completely and go home, sleep in my own bed, see my family and my dog, gain a fresh perspective away from the situation, and take care of myself and then return somewhat refreshed. My yoga and meditation practices always, always, always helped me to center, ground, and to breathe deeply through it all. Just another time in my life that yoga and meditation have saved me.
When dad came home with hospice he was still eating, visiting and going outside to sit on the deck. He would close his eyes and turn his face towards the warmth and light of the sun. He loved sitting outside. It was as if he was drinking it in quite possibly for the last time and relishing the warmth it brought to his face and soul. Ireland was wet and not warm like Minnesota can be during the summer months. He loved the sun and the warmth it provided and he was going to enjoy it as much as possible.
He was able to eat small portions of food and still visit with us and any visitors that stopped by. My father had taken some steps back away from the Catholic Church over the years. The farther he went away from the church the closer my mom got to the church. They did not agree on the amount of money my mother had donated to the church over the years. The local priest came for a few conversations with dad. I do not know if they were a final confession or just a candid chat.
As the week progressed he was eating and drinking less and needed assistance in getting up and walking. He was physically withering away right in front of our eyes. He was still talking and sharing moments of his life with us, but they were becoming fewer and farther between. A niece and her husband came to say their goodbyes. They traveled all the way from Ireland. Dad was very excited to see them and hear his native language. He started to talk to his deceased mother and sister. When he did speak to them he was all smiles. I know that he saw them.
I had four brothers growing up and the two in the middle have passed away. My youngest brother and my oldest brothers were the bookends of the family. My 6 remaining sisters and I made up the middle. There is a picture that someone had taken and captured a moment where my youngest brother was helping dad into bed and it was so beautiful and tender to witness. My little brother, now a grown man, lifting and carrying our frail and fragile father and very gently assisting him back into bed. It was quite a beautiful and a tearful moment. Lifelong roles had now reversed.
My oldest brother, the other bookend of the family, had came back to Minnesota after having lived in California for decades to help care for dad and tend his garden, help out around their house, and eventually to live with mom. He had a complicated relationship with dad. My dad had many expectations for his eldest son...the star student and star athlete. My brother chose a different path for his life than what my father had wanted for him...sound familiar? As the three of us stood together one day, I reminded my father that my brother's life was his to choose and not my father's to choose. It was definitely time to let that one go, dad. My father looked at me and he looked at my brother. They shook hands. There was some healing and forgiveness in that exchange. My father looked at me and said with utter sweetness and humility, "When did you get so smart, Angela?"
No matter what their relationship had been, every morning at 4:00 a.m., my oldest brother came downstairs from his room upstairs and showed up at the bedside of my father's and took his turn caring for dad in whatever capacity was required at the moment.
All of us came and went away from the bed of my father. Once again he is at the center of our attention. He definitely brought us together to care for him during his final hours. We would take turns sitting with him. Talking with him. Caring for him. Hoping he would share what was happening in his thoughts, tell us one more time how much we meant to him and we would tell him how much he meant to us. None of us ever received enough attention from our parents growing up and it was really clear at the end that we hoped for a bit more. There were just too many of us growing up, but it surely helped in the end to have so many of us to share in the care for dad.
At different times throughout that last week my father was beginning to see those ghosts waiting for him in the corridor. He would look up at the ceiling, smile, and talk to his dead mother or a variety of other visitors who happened by. One day as he was looking up to the ceiling he became very upset and he said with an incredulous expression, "What are you doing here?" We never did get an answer from him as to who that spirit was visiting him. I was curious. Perhaps it was his father.
One night during a lightening and thunderstorm when I was sitting next to dad and taking my turn caring for him. His hospice bed in the dining room faced a glass and wooden cabinet that held plates, bowls, glasses, and extra serving dishes. Tucked into the glass doors my mother had a few pictures and cards. During the storm, the power had gone out a few times. When the lights came back on, a picture of my sister Kristy fell slowly in a spiral pattern to the floor. Out of all of the pictures tucked into that cabinet, the only one that fell was of my deceased sister. My dad woke up and told us that Kristy and Brian were coming to collect him on Saturday. They may very well have been there to greet him when he crossed over.
When someone is dying they come into and out of awareness. He was talking less and sleeping more. Two days before he died was father's day and another sister's birthday. He woke up at some point during the day and out of the blue sang, "happy birthday to her." It was a special moment for her and such a gift that he remembered her birthday. After that he really stopped speaking.
It was Tuesday, June 17, 2014. It was in the evening. I felt like dad had been lingering for the past few days. I was sitting next to him and holding his hand. I could see my mom in the kitchen doing the dishes. I asked her if she had told him that it was ok to go. She said she thought that she had. She came over to his bed. She put a hand on each of his cheeks oh so very tenderly and leaned in close and said, "Frankie, it is ok to go. I will be ok. The kids are going to take care of me. I love you." She kissed him for the last time. A few sisters left. One went to bed. A few hours later, I held one hand and another sister held his other hand, and my mom, one brother and another sister were around his bed when he took his final breath.
I wished that I would have written down more of those conversations and moments shared with my family during this two-week period of time at the end of my father's life. There were so many emotions and feelings running through all of us. We all had different relationships with my father.
There were arguments, silent moments, meals shared, many stories, much laughter, many tears and a few mystical experiences that transpired in my parent’s home over those two weeks while my father was dying and we all came together as a family and cared for him. It was a gift to him and a gift for all of us.
The funeral home director was a good friend to my father and had been a running partner. He was the one who came to the house to transport my father to the funeral home. It was lovely having someone who knew my dad to take him away from the house for the last time. We all cried. We called family and friends to let them know that he had passed peacefully in his sleep.
Those New Balance Running shoes were worn one last time.
In loving memory of my beloved parents:
Alphonsus Philomena "Frank" "Phoncie" O'Brien
August 2, 1926 - June 17, 2014
Ruth Elaine Noland O'Brien
January 19, 1930 - November 15, 2017