God Be With You, Patrick Swayze

In Health on January 9, 2009 at 7:55 pm

My father died thirteen years and three weeks ago, right before Christmas, 1995. He had pancreatic cancer. Now we see Patrick Swayze with the same disease, seemingly dealing with it in ways that my father couldn’t. My father was dead less than four months after his diagnosis; he barely had time to digest what was happening to him. But Swayze was diagnosed a year ago, so he has already had more time than my father had. I don’t know what treatment Swayze has received, but my father spent his last month and a half in the hospital where he had two major surgeries which sapped his strength and his spirit.  When he died – of a heart attack – he was in an MRI machine.

I pray for a better death for Swayze. I hope I don’t sound ghoulish or presumptuous: he may have quite a while longer on this earth. But knowing pancreatic cancer – its survival rate is only 3%, and Swayze’s is stage four – he probably won’t see summer. I just read that Swayze has been hospitalized with pneumonia. I hope, for his sake, that he recovers and is able to stay active and hospital-free right up until the end.

When someone is dying, a hospital is not the best place to be. I’ve been at home with a loved one when she died, and while the blow is the same, the meaning is not. It feels like finishing a book and laying it down for the last time with a sigh: The story is over. When someone dies away from home and loved ones, it’s as if the reading was interrupted – and that you’ll never be able to finish it properly. The ending was revealed prematurely; you didn’t have time to work up to it.

That is true of any untimely death of course. And we can’t always time our presence for the exact moment of death. But there has to be something reassuring about being in your own home when you know you’re dying and you’re trying to deal with that fact. How disorienting it must be to be in a hospital! Maybe I’m wrong, maybe a dying person doesn’t care where she or he is. I’m not even sure my father wanted to come home – he was worried about being a burden on my mother. But it must have been a lonely place to be.

I know that if I could change one thing about my father’s death it would be that I could have been the one who ministered to his needs during those last six weeks of his life and not some nurse or aide, no matter how caring they might have been. At the time, I was working full-time, and I couldn’t take off work indefinitely since we didn’t really know when he would die. But I wish I had.

As it was, I had just been to visit him the night before he died. Cincinnati was in the throes of a horrific winter storm: freezing rain combined with blustery winds and an eventual snowfall of almost 13 inches. The normally two hour drive home to Columbus took me six. I played the same music tape over and over all the way home. It was instrumental and I remember it made me think of angels, which in a weird way gave me the courage to push forward.

Because I’d had such a rough time getting home and I knew my father was worried about me, I called him in his hospital room the next day on my lunch break, something I didn’t normally do. I told him I loved him and he told me he loved me, too. By the time I got home from work that day, he was already gone. It made me feel better that I’d called him so close to when he actually died. It was the only comfort I could find.

God bless you, Patrick Swayze. And when it is time for you to go, may you be with those you love in a place of warmth and comfort. That’s not much, I know, but when the time comes, it just might be enough.


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