Posted by: David Stewart | December 29, 2011

How Running Helps with Dying

On the day after Christmas this year, we were watching a movie, something we enjoy doing together as a family. The latest Mission Impossible movie, with my brother-in-law, and our phones were silenced. When the lights came up, we listened to our voice mail and got the bad news – Dad had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital.

When someone died in ancient times, the highest complement you could be paid (for example in the Bible) was "he died at a good old age, an old man and full of years." That’s a good description of my Dad. At 87 years old, he had survived our mother, he had made countless contributions to human knowledge, had worked until he was 83 years old doing something he loved, and had his whole family with him.

His stroke affected him profoundly, for example he could not swallow and was sleeping almost all of the time. His status was complicated by an existing Parkinsons-like neurological condition which had eroded his quality of life severely. He was increasingly unhappy at his dwindling capability. The neurologist told us he was not going to recover, even to the degraded point he was at before the stroke.

Dad was always very clear to us about his desire not to be kept alive through feeding tubes or extraordinary means. He was completely clear about that point, and I felt like we had to respect his values and his wishes. So the three children together with Dad’s wife, our stepmother, made the choice to move him into care at Porter Hospice in Denver. He would be moved from active care to comfort care to ease his transition. I have high complements for the staff at Swedish Medical Center and Porter Hospice, who were very compassionate and professional, not pushing anything on us, and at Porter creating a very comforting and comfortable environment for Dad and for our family.

This morning I took a run around my sister’s neighborhood outside Denver. I thought how much my running helps me understand dying a little better. I’m not acclimated to Colorado’s high altitude. So I am gasping and struggling for breath, my legs feel fatigued and I am slipping on patches of ice remaining on sidewalks.

I thought about Dad lying in bed in hospice, breathing rapidly as pneumonia gradually made it harder to take in air. How the very act of trying to move would be so fatiguing trying to work through disobeying nerves.

Once you stop running, you can usually catch your breath. You can rest your muscles and recover from fatigue. But Dad couldn’t rest from his journey until the end. Hospice staff is well trained so that there is no perception of suffering at the end. It is quite peaceful from the patient’s perspective. I think that there may be more suffering for the family as they sit and wait for an undetermined time for the end.

Running has helped me to feel in a very tiny way some of what Dad might feel, and also to know that what seems painful now will end. In any training run or race, there is an end, a finish line. Pain must sometimes be endured for a time, even as patience wears thin. There is a time for all things, as it says, even a time to die. "He has made everything beautiful in its time."

Dad passed away this morning, crossing the finish line, accepting his medal and resting.

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