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Legacies and Last Days



Joe took this photo on the west coast of Ireland in 2009. I've always liked it.

Today I am remembering the final days of Joe’s life. We brought him home from the hospital for the last time in mid-November of 2017. Although the rehab team wanted to keep him there another week, their best efforts at helping him were not effective, and Joe was weary and discouraged. He could no longer communicate or walk, and we knew the cancer was growing out of control.


I am so glad we elected to bring him home. We found a wonderful hospice team who helped us care for him, and he was able to finally relax in his own room—no more needles, tests, or midnight interruptions. We diffused essential oils, provided some of his favorite foods as long as he could eat, and read and sang to him.


Joe didn’t seem “all there” the last week of his life. Although he was awake some of the time, he was not responsive. He couldn’t help us when we turned him in his bed or got him up to sit in a chair. He didn’t seem confused, he just seemed… absent. It was heartbreaking to see him fade away like that. Some families deal with this situation for months on end. I can’t imagine…


I think the only time that last week he showed any response was when I sat by his bed the day before he died and read to him some of the many Facebook tributes people wrote about him. One after another, people shared how Joe had encouraged them or their children to deepen their faith, pursue their passion, or address their bad habits and be a better person. As I read these tributes to him, a couple of tears escaped and rolled down his cheek.


So he wasn’t absent after all.


Apparently he hadn’t realized what a difference he had made.


I’m sure none of us realizes the difference we make in the lives of others, for bad or good. It might be useful to sometimes imagine we are living our last few days—what will people be writing about us? Perhaps we should decide what we want our legacy to be, and start doing it now, if we’re not already.


Joe’s final day was pleasant and relaxing. It was Thanksgiving Day, and while Jeff cooked the turkey as usual on the grill, Jamie and Anna took care of the rest of the meal. I said it was a pleasant, relaxing day, but it was also somber and difficult for the four of us. Joe was no longer eating and we knew his time on earth was coming to a close. We had each previously said our private goodbyes to him. I don’t know what Jeff or the girls said, but among other things I made sure to thank him for being such a wonderful son. He truly was.


On that day we went through our usual traditions: the same food we always prepare for the holiday, the good china, etc. Joe was not able to get up so the four of us tried to enjoy our dinner downstairs while he rested upstairs in his bed. We then joined him in his room and sang our traditional Thanksgiving hymns. We missed Joe’s steady baritone but hoped he enjoyed the music.


A few moments later, Joe breathed his last.


It is painful to remember that season of our lives, but Joe’s life and death are a part of our family history and a part of who we are today. And so we do remember. Because of Joe’s personality and character, there is a lot more good than bad in our memories. Joe’s legacy of service continues to be an inspiration to me.


One of these years, I’ll be able to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at home again.


But not this year.

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