Brave, the Way He Taught Us to Be

Peter McFarland died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at 2:45 in the morning on October 16th, 2012. His daughter Alice Toohey shares her experience of being with him the week before he died at home in Maine and the tender courage that emerged around his deathbed.

Me & Pa

Peter and Alice. Maine. Summer 2012

“You should come and visit again” Pa told me one day in September when I called. “It might be the last time we see each other.”

When I arrived in Jefferson on October 9th, I climbed right up onto the bed and joked with Peggy and Pa about Bruce and how clean his puppy white teeth were. Pa showed me videos from Rachel Maddow’s website on his iPad. That day Peggy told me something was wrong but she wasn’t sure what it was. Glynnis, his hospice nurse, told us that his lungs were clear so he didn’t have pneumonia.

Pa had a rough night that night. In the morning Peggy told me that he wanted to vote and to see Dr. Eckert. She was our family doctor who was to sign the death certificate when Pa died. We told Dr. Eckert about his voting and she agreed  it was really important this year. Pa said “Well I won’t be around to see the results”. We all looked at him. Dr. Eckert said “I hope you will be”. “Yea”, he said. Then when she left she said again, “I hope you get to see the results”. “Maybe I will”, he said. Pa filled out his absentee ballot.

He kept apologizing to me for being sick. “Didn’t this happen the last time you came?” he asked me. I knew what he meant. The last time we didn’t get to spend much time talking because it was a big party; this time was supposed to be for quality time. “I just hope you start feeling better.” I said. “I don’t think there is going to be any better from here”, he said.

He moved downstairs to a hospital bed that morning. While we were waiting for Glynnis to come again Pa turned to me and said “I don’t want to die… I was going to be so strong about this.”

This is one of the times that I wished I had more training. I touched his arm and said, “I don’t know what to say”. There was silence for a moment and then I said “You will probably feel a little stronger if you eat something”. “Ok” he said. I ran and got him some sliced peaches and he ate a few. I wish now that I had asked him more about how he was feeling in that moment, instead of rushing to some kind of band-aid.

At the time I was very proud of myself that I could get him to eat. I spent time imagining what would taste good to him and my intuitions seemed good because he did allow me to feed him. Now I realize that he really didn’t need to eat, his body was in the shutting down process, and food could have complicated things. But he ate small amounts when I asked him to, and when Peggy congratulated him on eating scrambled eggs, he said “Well, Alice needed me to.”

My brother Colin and I went to Wal-mart and on the way we stopped at the post office to mail the absentee ballot. In Wal-mart, Colin waited patiently while I tried on shoes and decided to buy a pair of black flats. He checked the price of cider to see if it was cheaper here or at the grocery store. We were getting a cord for the cable, so Pa could watch the vice-presidential debates from his hospital bed downstairs. The debates were that night.

My sister Ruth called. “Should I come?” I didn’t know, it was hard to tell what was going to happen. The next time I spoke to her, I remembered that Pa had asked if she was coming. We asked him if she should come and he said yes. She decided to come right away.

I realized after this that everything he was saying had meaning and I should make sure to listen to his requests. I felt silly that I hadn’t realized he was asking for Ruthy. He asked for others in those next few days and everyone came.

I spent a lot of time lying next to him and holding his hand. I rubbed his arm at one point and he said; “That feels good”. I was surprised as he was usually a very stoic man. Then he said “I guess it is love that matters in a person’s life.”

Later, he woke up and turned to see who was beside him in bed. I was looking at his face so intently when he woke up that he said “trying to memorize my face?” Surprised and feeling kind of caught in the act, I said “yes”. “Ok,” he said and closed his eyes again.

Everybody started arriving on Friday. Once the whole family was there it seemed real. We moved into creating this environment that was so beautiful and efficient, achingly kind to each other. We were holding the experience and holding each other. And we held Pa, someone always curled up by his side and someone always holding his other hand.

On Friday afternoon I walked in and asked him how he was: “It’s really strange here on Mars.” “Really?” I asked. “Yep”, he said, “really strange”.

I think it was Saturday night that he started to feel suspicious of us. We were looking at pictures of Peggy and Pa when they were younger. “Look Pa, it’s a picture of you and Peggy”. “What?” he said, suddenly sharp and clear. He asked us if we were trying to trick him. “No”, I said, “just showing you a picture”. He looked at me and said, “There is an air of distrust in the room”. Then he gently scratched his finger at my arm. “What does that mean?” I asked him. “Nothing”, he said, “just…” and he did it again. I was frightened by his sharpness, and walked out of the room

Later he looked over and saw my uncle Philip. “There’s Philip”, he said…”Hi Philip”. Philip didn’t hear Pa at the time, but when I told him later, a huge smile came over his face and tears to his eyes. “That means so much to me” he said.

My nephew Conor was scared to go right up to Pa at first but he wanted to help. So we asked him what he would like to do and he drew a picture of Pa to hang on the wall next to the bed. 

On Sunday I asked Mark, my sister’s boyfriend, to help me make a list of everything we would need after Pa died. Because he was being buried at home, we would need to prepare him for burial ourselves. I found a website called Crossings that told us what to do each step of the way. Something about the honesty and straight forwardness of the site comforted me. Once he died, there were things we needed to do. It was the next stage. There was a plan.

That was the night of the morphine nurse, who gave him a morphine tablet rectally and made him cry out in pain “ow,ow,ow,ow,ow,ow”. As we settled him down, Peggy and I stroked his chest and said “it’s ok, you are ok” over and over while we wept at having caused him pain. As he settled down, Peggy said “I love you, Peter” and he said “I love you too”. I think those were his last words.

Although we were angry at the nurse for hurting him she was the one who finally told us that he was really dying. Peggy asked her “are we fooling ourselves?” “Are you asking me if he is dying?” she said. “Yes”, we said. “I would say he has about 24 hours.”

Eilidh and I stayed up all night drinking wine and tea and listening for Pa’s breathing. Peggy slept moments, but mostly held Pa’s hand and stroked his chest.

On Monday, my brother Truax and I took a ride down to the town hall to get a permit to transport human remains. The last time I was at this town hall I was filing a marriage certificate with my husband Sean. This time the woman behind the desk looked at us with glowing eyes; “I really like Peter” she said. “I’ve known him for many years”.

That morning he was making a gurgling sound in his throat. When Glynnis came she told us that he was close. She swabbed out his throat, and showed us how to use the drops that dried up extra mucus. My brother Angus had gone back to Portland to play a gig and we were waiting for him to come back. “Angus is on his way, Peter.” Glynnis told him. She told us that the hearing is the last thing to go.

After this point there was a lot of storytelling and a lot of crying. Everyone cried. It was heartbreaking to see my brothers cry. There was so much love and so much heartbreak. No one screamed or gnashed their teeth. We sat around holding each other and telling stories about Pa, laughing and loving him so much. We were all very brave, the way he taught us to be.

I was asleep when he died. I think most of us were. Peggy woke up to see his last breath, but all of us kiddies were tucked in, drifted off. Piled around him like seals. Safe. It was a good time for him to tiptoe away. 

aliceAlice Toohey lives in Glendale with her husband Sean and a small dog named Finn. She has been coming around Shambhala for about five years and currently holds the post of center administrator for SMCLA. Alice has a blog for her current performance project, Four Rooms

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