Dancing into Heaven
(Published: Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery)
Most of us are not afraid of death; we are simply afraid of dying. Will it be an ordeal for ourselves and those who love us? Working with Hospice and sitting with family members during their last days has taught me that we die the
way we live. Those who live courageous lives face death with the same positive
energy. Sharing their dying can be
a rare privilege.
Such an experience impacted
my life profoundly when I had the honor of being with my 94-year-old uncle until he drew his last, peaceful breath. My uncle was an advocate of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy and practiced it to the end of
his long, successful life.
Uncle Ray outlived my
Aunt Maude by ten years. After fifty-five years of marriage, the family was concerned
about his living alone. It was unwarranted.
He lived those next ten years fully and without self-pity or complaint. Although
his adopted son died at two years of age, he had a close, loving family of nieces and nephews.
His quality of life was
exceptional. Two months before his death, he was still playing golf—only
nine holes and no longer counting strokes—but thoroughly enjoying the beautiful golf course and blue Florida sky overhead. His mind was sharp and clear, and he retained his curiosity about life. A year earlier he had called me and said, "I'm thinking about getting a computer. Now I want you to tell me the truth. Am I too old? And am I smart enough?" I assured him he was not too old and
definitely smart enough. We emailed one another from then on.
His wonderful caregiver
came every day from 5:00 to 7:00 to cook for him. On Thursdays, she spent all
day with him, running errands and weather permitting, playing golf with him. She
was a God-send in his life.
During the summer of
2004, he had a few minor health problems and spent time in the hospital. Needing
to get his strength back, he entered a Rehabilitation Center. When he was ready
to come home, I traveled to Florida to help him do so. Two days after my arrival,
however, he became ill with an infection and had to go back into the hospital. To
the family's dismay, a downward spiral began that ended in his death three weeks later.
Those weeks will remain in my mind and heart for the rest of my life.
I think of it as a sad
but extraordinary time. Sad because he was dying, and there were some difficult
hours; special because of who he was and how he handled the last days of his life.
There were touching moments
I will never forget. He would quietly sing to himself. He would give himself pep talks, saying "Com'n boy, you can do it."
One afternoon, while we both rested, I heard him say, "Things always seem to work out in the end."
There were difficult
moments, a few hours of pain when he asked me to hold his hand, and we prayed together until the medication took effect. I told him I wouldn't leave his side and that he didn't have to be afraid. He smiled and said, “I’m not afraid.” When
it came to positive thinking, he walked his talk.
About a week before he
died, while he was still perfectly alert and coherent, we were sitting together in the twilight of his hospital room,
talking about this and that. Suddenly I heard the word, Maude. "What did you say?" I asked him. "I saw Maude," he responded.
I asked, tentatively,
"You mean in a dream?" He
hesitated and said, slowly, "Well, I guess you could call it a dream." He paused. "No, it was real. I reached out and touched
her. I could feel her. It was real."
I waited. Finally, he continued, "She wore a long, pink dress. She was
tall and slim, and she looked beautiful!" He
added, "She wanted to dance." I remembered how much
he and Aunt Maude had loved to dance.
"Uncle Ray," I said,
"when Aunt Maude comes again, I think you should dance with her." I went home that night full of the joy and light of their love.
The last four days were
spent at a Hospice facility. The loving care of the staff comforted me as
much as him. My chair by his bed opened up into a chaise lounge. A CD played soothing music. Family continued to call every
day and tell him that they loved him. He slowly withdrew from us, however, his
eyes staring toward the ceiling, appearing to be listening intently and talking to others invisible to us. When I spoke to him, he would smile politely and listen but eventually his eyes would shift as though seeing
someone behind me. I felt as though I had interrupted an important conversation.
The last day he slept
deeply. I read passages from my Hospice book and the Bible, encouraging him to relax
into the light. He waited until his dear caregiver joined me that afternoon. Ten minutes later, as we stood on each side of his bed, he took one quick breath and—never
took another. It was so peaceful that neither of us could believe he was gone.
I shall always be grateful
for the privilege of sharing those last weeks with my uncle. Uncle Ray taught
me how to live, then he taught me how to die, and then he danced with Aunt Maude into Heaven.