Tuesday, September 13, 2011
A sacred moment
At the moment of my father's passing, he was surrounded by my sisters, Annie, Lisa and Gretchen.
The picture above was taken just moments before my father, Charles Robert Bauerlein, Sr., passed on to another life shortly after 6 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 12th. He succumbed to a form of lymphoma, Burkett's disease, after a three-month battle.
This past Saturday morning he told my sister Gretchen he wanted to stop chemotherapy treatment and that he wanted his life to come to an end. His doctors were reluctant to allow my father to enter hospice care until they had seen him. They told my sister the pain he was in might be something easy to mend.
My father told her he didn't wish to go see any more doctors, that he wanted to die at home, in his own bed. My sister promised him she would not allow the doctors to keep him overnight, that she would bring him home afterwards.
When he arrived at the emergency room of Chester County Hospital, the doctor asked him why he was there. He pointed an accusing finger at my sister Gretchen and told him, "it's because of her!" He was dehydrated. It was an easy fix, but they wanted to keep him overnight for observations. My father had had enough. He wanted release from his suffering. We took him home to my sister Lisa's house in New Holland.
I was fortunate enough to be with him at the hospital on Saturday with Gretchen and a handful of other relatives, including my daughter Lili and my sister Trudy. My dad was lucid, though his voice was soft and hard to hear. He asked Lili how school was and he asked my nephew Karl how his recent move from Colorado had gone. He was fully in the moment.
By the early hours of Sunday morning, he was more than ready for the end to come. He asked my brother-in-law Joe (a physician) to give him enough pain relievers to end his life. He told him, "I'm sure if we sign the papers, the church and the state will be okay with that." He got angry at my brother in law when he didn't comply with this request.
I was going to visit him on Sunday but I called before I left home and Joe told me he didn't want to see anyone, he just wanted to be left alone to die. The hospice nurse told us he would only last a few more days, possible even hours and that if we came, we should not stay longer than 15 minutes and we should be ready to say five things to him.
"I love you, dad."
"I forgive you for any harm you did to me."
"Please forgive me for any harm I did to you."
"You were a good father."
I decided to let some of my other siblings go see him on Sunday because I live closer than the rest of them. I went yesterday morning to see him for about an hour and a half. I was glad I did.
By Monday morning, without any nourishment and with the cancer ravaging his body, he was emaciated and very weak. His eyes glazed over and his breathing was labored. I sat at his side and held his hand and squeezed his fingers, but I did not receive any sign from him that he knew I was there. The bed sheets and a thin red blanket that covered him moved perceptibly from the force of his lungs trying to draw breath.
A stack of unopened cards from relatives and friends were on a small table near the bed and one of my sisters suggested I read them to him and told me he could hear me, so I did. Nearly all of them told my father he was the object of their thoughts and prayers and suggested he could beat the disease that had brought him to death's door. They urged him to carry on the fight. Some friends told him they would "see him soon" and to "please get well." Some said they knew he would be better soon and would be able to join my mother, Agnes, at the retirement home in Wisconsin where she now resides as an Alzheimer's patient.
It was hard reading them to him, knowing how close he was to the end and that he would never see my mother and most of these well-wishers again.
I made my peace with him and asked him for his forgiveness for all the times I hurt him with unkind things I said. There were hundreds and some were fresh on my mind. I told him I forgave him for things he did to me and that I was sorry for holding on to those things for so long; things I should have forgotten and let go of years ago. I told him he was a great father, that he had carried a heavy load for decades raising 11 children and that his care for my mother these last five or six years was a remarkable effort that made him a hero in my eyes.
Nothing I said to him seemed to register. His life had been reduced to a short race to the other side and involuntary gasps of breath. He was unable to close his mouth and I used a small sponge on a short piece of plastic to swab his mouth and lips with cool water.
About 15 minutes before I had to leave to get to my Monday classes, my sister Annie came from her home in Bucks County. She carried her guitar with her and immediately opened it and started to sing hymns to him. She started with "Amazing Grace" and then searched for another song to sing to him from a church hymnal. I asked her to sing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," a song I first heard when I was 17, on a visit with my father to Preservation Hall in New Orleans when I was a senior in high school visiting the city to see Loyola University.
I hadn't heard the lyrics of the song in many decades, but I was familiar with the tune because I had heard it played many times at jazz funerals in New Orleans and on my Preservation Hall Jazz Band CDs. I glanced her over shoulder and sang the words with her and was struck by how much comfort they gave me. I hoped my father could hear them. I wondered if they comforted him as much as they did me.
I am weak, but Thou art strong;
Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.
Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.
Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.
When my feeble life is o’er,
Time for me will be no more;
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.
We followed that up with Paul Simon's song of inspiration, "Bridge Over Trouble Water." I kissed my father's head and said my goodbyes to my sisters. Then I went back to my father's bedside and kissed him again and told him I would "see you tomorrow." I was pretty sure that even if that were true, he would not see me.
About ten minutes after I got home from my classes, my sister Lisa called me in tears to mention my father had passed just five minutes ago. The scene of his passing, with my sisters at his side stroking his head and telling him it was okay to leave and that they loved him and singing "Amazing Grace" to him filled me with peace.
I was sad my mother could not be there too, to be with him as he passed to the other side. But it seemed to me to be a most perfect way to leave this world. We should all be so lucky. I immediately called my own children to tell them the news and then started calling friends.
I drove out to New Holland and spent the next three hours in my father's presence with my siblings and some of my nieces and nephews while we all laughed and cried and told stories and anecdotes about the man who raised us.
There will be hundreds more stories to tell and retell in the next few days. His viewing will be held at 9:30 a.m. St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Germantown, Pa. on Friday, Sept. 16th. The funeral service will start at 11 a.m. We expect the church to be filled to near capacity with his family and friends. He leaves one brother, 11 children, 27 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. He was more than a patriarch of our family. He was the rock.
He lived a great life. We will honor it with a service that no one who goes to it will ever forget.