Thoughts on dying: My father died a beautiful death today
By Nate Thayer
January 21, 2017
My father died at 5:53 PM Eastern Standard Time today. It was, as far as dying goes, a beautiful death.
I visited him for two hours this afternoon and, like each of the last 18 days since January 3 when he went into hospice care with the intention of dying, he held my hand tightly during our visit.
My father and I spoke often about dying these past months as it became clear that his year-long Sisyphean, determined struggle to defeat his cancer was not to be victorious. He was tired of suffering, of being in pain, of the dehumanizing and unacceptable absence of a quality of life in his days.
The day he made the decision to die, we talked at his home. I walked into his darkened room and leaned over his chair where, covered in blankets and attached to a feeding tube, he had been sleeping for many weeks.
I kissed him on the forehead. It was the first time I had kissed my father in over 40 years. He deserved it.
Dad was dying and he knew it better than anyone.
He told me that day that he had decided to embark on the end of life phase towards his impending death. “I don’t want to fight anymore,” he said. “I don’t want to be in pain anymore if I am not going to get better. I do not want to suffer anymore. It is time for me to die.”
My father looked me in the eyes and paused. ” I do not want to die, but it is time now.”
Dad has always been an extraordinarily disciplined, pragmatic man. “Promise me that you will tell everyone to please respect my wishes.” I promised him I would. And everyone did in the 18 days since it took for my father to die.
My father and I shared a similar view on death: That it is a natural and inevitable, although not preferred or optimal, part of life. Death comes in its own way, in its own time for each of us. And it is embraced, and resisted, differently by each person as uniquely as the special, different, unique individuals each of us are.
Today, death came and took my father to somewhere else. Like his life, it was a very good death.
Dad had lived a remarkably accomplished life. He left the world a better place than when he arrived in this life. He served his country with distinction. He achieved enviable success in his career, serving as an Ambassador for his country and a renowned diplomat in his speciality of United States Chinese relations.
13 months ago, Dad was a remarkably healthy 87-year-old man , swimming laps every day, engaged in life, interested in and interesting to others, and continuing to work part-time for the United States Department of State in a career that spanned over 50 years. Prior to becoming a diplomat, he was, like myself, a journalist who had worked for the Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper and Newsweek magazine. He had lived around the world and he loved and was loved by many.
A year ago, he was diagnosed with a form of throat cancer. Within weeks, he underwent a series of treatments and a month later was sent home to endure, to struggle, and intent on defeating as much the effects of the treatment to kill the cancer as the effects of the cancer itself. One, the other, or both killed my father today.
It is the normal rhythm of life.
For more than year, my father had lost the ability to swallow and therefore the ability to eat through his mouth. He was fed through tubes in his stomach.
Increasingly, he had lost the ability to talk without unspeakable, unrelenting pain and discomfort. The pain was truly evil, accompanied by choking and gagging, which he told me truly frightened him. Throughout it all, he struggled as the extraordinarily disciplined and determined man he has always been always has. He got up and exercised rigorously every day. He went several times a week to speech and physical therapy. He endured the sterile and dehumanizing poking and prodding of medical professionals that seemed endless and increasingly defined his days. Throughout it all, he had multiple daily visits by his children and grandchildren and select friends. He shared this all with his loving third wife.
Through a gift of God, a team of four angels were sent to us in the form of an extended family of Filipino immigrants to the United States who have provided 24 hour home care to my father for the past year. They are now a part of our family.
At first, we, and he, all had very high hopes. There were periods of improvement.
But Ambassador Harry Elstner Talbott Thayer, born September 10, 1927, had not gotten better after he went into hospital for treatment in December 2015.
His quality of life deteriorated, becoming increasingly horrific.
Eighteen days ago, he made the decision to give up the Sisyphean struggle. He said he wanted to die with a minimum of pain and discomfort, to die with dignity while having his suffering mitigated as much as possible. He told me, in his signature matter-of-fact tone, he had “no more hope that I will live.” He said there was “no light at the end of this tunnel.”
“It is time for me to die now,” he said.
He was right.
Dad entered hospice on January 3 with the same determination to die with grace and purpose he had to live his life with meaning and purpose and sacrifice and contribution.
The shift from being very ill to the process of actually dying often comes during the last two weeks before death itself, and it did for my father. Death comes in its own time and its own way for each of us, embraced and resisted and accepted by each person as differently as each of us is unique.
“I am happy. I am content,” he told me. “I don’t want to suffer anymore. I don’t want anymore pain,” he told me. These words were not spoken with angst or self-pity, but rather as he rational conclusion of a man who had considered the options available, the consequences, benefits, and downside of each, and chosen the optimal of not very good choices he had available.
For the first week or so in hospice, Dad was not awake for more than five or ten minutes at a stretch.
Then one day, last week, it was as if God entered the room.
He transformed into an energetic, alert, entirely lucid, often profound and entirely engaged person. He was witty, at times downright hilarious, cracking jokes. He talked non-stop for nearly two days. I believe it was not a coincidence that these were the same days that all four of his children, his single son-in-law, and all five of his grandchildren were visiting him, save one grandchild he had spent the previous day with who had returned to college.
Dad spoke to all of us as a group and then he asked for time alone with each one of us.
I sat in the chair beside his bed.
“I think you have had a good life, Dad. You have a lot of people who love you and you have loved a lot of people. You have contributed to making the world a better place. You have accomplished a lot. Do you think you have had a good life? Are you satisfied with the life you lived?” I asked him.
“I have tried my best, my best within the limitations of being human. I am satisfied with the life I lived. I am content. It is time for me to die now.” he said.
Dad became philosophical. He was profound. He wanted to convey things that were important to him and were important for him to tell each of us. He spoke of the principles most important and helpful in his life, primarily forgiveness and loyalty.
“Forgiveness is very important to me. To be able to forgive and to be forgiven,” he said.
“Yes. It is almost a selfish act to forgive. It brings comfort and peace and resolution to the one who forgives and brings comfort to those we have forgiven. To me, to forgive brings such peace and satisfaction to everyone that there really is no downside,” I said.
“Yes. I am glad you think so, too. It has been very important in my life. Forgiveness and loyalty both. I am happy it is important to you, too. It will make you a better, happier person.”
He spoke of two people “who wounded me when I was alive.” He said he had long ago forgiven both. I do not know nor did I need to what the source of this pain he felt was. He asked me to tell one of them he had forgiven her, but said of the other “I don’t want you to tell her at all I said this.”
“Why, Dad? Is it because it would hurt her to know you were speaking of the pain she caused you in life when you were dying?” I asked.
He looked in my eyes and paused and said “Yes. Exactly. I am glad you understand. I do not want to cause her any pain.”
“Dad, do you think you are dying now?” I asked him.
“Yes, I know I am dying,” he responded without hesitation. “And I want to die. It is time for me to die.”
“Do you think about where one goes after one dies” I asked.
“Yes. I have thought a lot about that and I am happy with my conclusion,” he said. “The answer is I have no idea. I am satisfied in not knowing the answer. I don’t want to know. When I think about dying, if I think about dying in a car crash or choking to death, dying a painful death, it frightens me. So I don’t want to think about it.”
“Do you believe in God,” I asked my father.
He looked at me and said “I have thought about that question many, many times since I was a boy. The answer is I do not know,” he said. “I am satisfied with that.”
“Yes, I know how you feel. I don’t know if there is a God, but I sure hope there is one because I sure could benefit sometimes if he did exist,” I said.
“Yes. Exactly. I have known we feel the same on this,” Dad said.
It was time for me to go.
“I’ll see you tomorrow Dad,” I said.
“Yes. God willing.” Then he held my gaze and smiled and said after a pause “Even though I don’t believe in God.”
A few days later, Dad, after consulting with his doctors and family, had the tube providing him nutrients and water that had been inserted in his stomach a year earlier, removed.
I asked him: “Dad, do you feel fully informed about what it means to stop the food and water that you have been getting through the peg tube?”
“I am dying, Nat. I want to die now. It is time. I am comfortable with no peg tube,” he said. ” I feel like I have been fully informed of what that means. I am ready now to begin the transition to the end of this life.”
If my father was ready to die, then I, too, was ready to let him go as well.
Today, like each day this month, I visited my father.
I held my father’s hand and he gripped it meaningfully to tell me he knew I was there, even though he could not speak. I knew he had entered the final turn on the final lap and the finish line of life was in sight.
My father was not fully conscious during the visit, occasionally opening his eyes and looking at me briefly, but he took my hand and he squeezed it as I spoke and still gripped it while we just sat in silence.
“I love you very much, Dad. I will miss you. Your family is at peace and you should be, too. All your children are here with you. I want you to know, I want to tell you it is okay with me, it is ok with everyone that you die now if you want to, to go whenever you want to or to wherever it is one goes after this life here.”
My father gripped my hand even tighter with acknowledgement after I spoke those words, the hand he had reached over and held for most of the two hours during our final visit today. When I left, I stood and leaned over and gave him a long kiss on the forehead, reluctant to take my lips from his head or release his grip from my hand.
But I knew it was time.
“Goodbye, Dad. I will miss you.”
I knew I would not see him again and we both were content with that.
As I left Dad about 4:30 this afternoon, I stopped by the nurses station to hear what their thoughts were and to make sure they knew that my father was dying.
“I think my father will die very soon,” I told the two nurses. “It may be very, very soon. I would be very surprised if he does not die before tomorrow morning. Is that different from how you see things”
“We don’t use that word here,” said one nurse. “We say transition.”
“You can call it whatever you want,” I said. Normally this would have annoyed me greatly and I would likely have said something that would not have been well received, but I felt it unnecessary and irrelevant and undignified to be annoyed today. “You can call it whatever you want. My father is about to die in the coming hours it seems to me.”
Just before 6:00 PM, my brother, who had come to be with my father when I left, called me and said: “Dad died at 5:53. He was sleeping and peaceful and then he died.”
My father’s last words were shortly before he died. His mouth was trying to form words to voice something. His lips formed again and he whispered “I want to go home now.”
I returned to the hospice and visited with him one last time. I held his hand, but he did not tighten his grip as he had earlier this afternoon, as he had every day this last sad, beautiful, meaningful month. “I love you, Dad. You were a good father and a good man. I am going to miss you. I hope wherever you are now is a happy place to be.”
I kissed him on his forehead one last time and I left.
Dad had gone an hour earlier to wherever one goes.
Let there be no one who does not know that Harry Thayer was loved and respected and is missed. And that the world is a better place for him having lived.