When someone wants to end a relationship, she or he may say, “I just need some space.” But when I told my kids I needed a little space from their father, they understood I wasn’t trying to break up. Jerry was the love of my life, but at 85 his health was failing, his memory was going, and I was exhausted from caregiving. I needed a respite, and our daughters were happy to give me a week off. They enjoyed time alone with their dad.

So I took a cruise to Bermuda with a friend who was also her spouse’s principal caregiver. We both desperately needed a timeout. I called him every day, but I was glad for the space.

I didn’t know that only two-and-a-half months later Jerry would be dead.

Now there’s a gaping chasm where the center of my life used to be. A hole in me. Who am I now? How shall I fill my time? Where shall I live?

At six feet two and 200 pounds Jerry took up a lot of space. Though he was quiet and unassuming, his presence energized any room he entered. When he sat on the sofa, he occupied half of it with that alpha-male stance of knees and arms spread wide. Or he’d lounge in an easy chair, feet stretched out in front, unaware he was making it hard for others to pass by.

Any flat space (tabletops, a bookshelf, kitchen counter, even an ironing board) was in jeopardy. Car-keys, loose change, cellphone, junk mail, pocket calendar—he emptied his pockets as he walked through the house. I used to fuss about it.

The house is tidier now. I wish his stuff was still there.

The grief counselor said, “Don’t make any big decisions for at least a year.” No problem. It will take that long to get my house ready, if I decide to sell it. I’ll have to get rid of 26 years of stuff. To learn how to do that, I found myself at a lecture sponsored by an upscale retirement community. A young blonde woman with too much mascara, three-inch heels, and a shrill, super-peppy voice said as she smiled reassuringly, “Don’t think of downsizing as losing; think of it as gaining space.”

She’s right about that. As trash goes to the dumpster and boxes go out the door to Vietnam Veterans of America or the Lupus Foundation or Miriam’s Kitchen, my house seems to expand. Books are no longer falling out of the shelvesnow there’s space for framed photos and small vases and small sculptures among the hundreds of books I’m keeping.

Now that broken or excess tools are gone or hanging up or neatly shelved, I can park my Prius C in the garage for the first time in two years. But I’m not yet ready for a yard sale and the kids don’t want china or crystal or silver. So the “good stuff” sits untouched and unused, still taking up space.

That’s what’s happening on this side of the veil—my side, for now.

Being with Jerry in his last few weeks gave me a glimpse into the other side. As he transitioned, time and space became very fluid. He seemed to move back and forth between this world and the next. Or to be in both at once.

In his last month Jerry would rock back and forth in his chair, eyes closed, hands open, like a davening Jew at the wailing wall. On every out-breath he would groan. Sometimes he seemed to be speaking, but his speech was slurred and very soft so I couldn’t always tell. His forehead was knotted as if in intense effort.

At first his rocking distressed me, especially the groaning. “Are you in pain?” I’d ask.

 

“No.” He didn’t open his eyes.

 

“Does it comfort you to do that?”

 

“Yes.” He resumed rocking and groaning.

 

A little later I realized he was praying.

I wanted desperately to share his journey. I wanted to know what he was saying to God. So I turned on my iPhone recorder app, hoping I’d be able to understand Jerry’s words later when I could turn up the volume.

Here’s what I heard the first time I played it back: Jerry was praying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  

Another day he whispered, “Hold on, hold on!” over and over again. I couldn’t tell whether he was asking God to hold on or telling himself to try to keep living. To comfort him, I said, “Honey, God is holding on. He’ll never let you goon this side or the other.”

“This side!” Jerry said. He wasn’t quite ready to go.

The last recording was a few hours later the same day, October 3. In four more days he would lose consciousness and sink into a coma. I sat beside him on the sofa and wrapped my arms around him. A shift was occurring. He spoke with an effort, but he wanted to bring me into his conversation with God.

“Are you praying?” I asked as he rocked.

“That’s what I’m doing.”

“What are you asking for?” Jerry was silent. I tried again, “Just to accompany you?”

“Accompany me… join me.” Then he continued, “It’s not too bad. It really isn’t…. But on the other hand, what else can I do?  Let it be…. That’s all.”

“Are you anxious?” I asked.

“No. No, you know, I’m not. Not at all. It’s really amazing. It is. I’m really quite peaceful … with all these things going on…. Amazing, isn’t it?”

After a quiet pause Jerry started to sing without words.  “Dum-de-dum-dum, dum-de-dum-dum”he tune to an Alleluia we love in our church. His singing became a medley of tunes I couldn’t identify. Then I recognized “Jesus Loves Me,” so I joined in, singing the words. Jerry started to sing the words with me. We finished the song and fell into silence. Together.

Now I imagine Jerry on the other side, no longer bound by time and space. His body is free from walkers and wheelchairs and oxygen tanks. He can breathe freely and sing and laugh. (Do we laugh in Heaven? We must!) I see him young and strong as when we fell in love, running along a beach with Honey, his Shepherd-Husky mix. (Are there pets in Heaven? How could we be happy without them?) In this new space Jerry’s heart is free to love God even more than he did here. He is free to reconnect with the memories he’d lost on this side. (Or not? Do we remember there, or is it too painful?) Jerry is happy and at peace, fully alive in God’s love.

Back on my side the tears have slowed, though they dwell near the surface. My anxiety is abated. I’m able to sleep once more. And I, too, am free. I can try on new personas, reinvent myself yet again, from teacher to lawyer to judge to mediator. From caregiver to writer. There’s a spaciousness in life and death that I’m only just beginning to discover.

 

Carolyn Miller Parr
Carolyn Miller Parr has a passion for peacemaking with families, churches, nonprofits, and businesses. A former judge, she now helps clients resolve problems without going to court. She co-authored husband Jerry's memoir, "In The Secret Service" (Tyndale). A new book (working title: Love's Way: How Families Can Live in Peace as Parents Age) is due out in January 2019. She's a founding member of Joseph's House (a hospice for homeless men), Mediators Beyond Borders, and The Servant Leadership School in DC. Writing has appeared in USA Today, Ready Magazine, Faith Happenings, Age in Place, and Redbud Post.

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  1. Oh, you are beautiful, Carolyn, inside and out. This little piece breathes with life and love, and breathes life and love.

    After reading “In The Secret Service” and knowing those glimpses into your relationship, I can almost envision these scenes you share here. Thank you for letting us in.

    1. Jacci, It God bless you and your wonderful work.was such a gift to be present at this holy time. God bless you and your wonderful work!

  2. Carolyn – what a beautiful, God-filled account of a sacred time in Jerry’s life. It brings me so much comfort as his disease is perhaps the one I fear most. Thank you. Your love for him and for God is precious.

    1. Thank you, Kate. Yes. It taught me that no matter how sick a person may be, their core being in God is always present. It was a great comfort.

  3. Beautiful words, Carolyn. Thank you for the glimpse inside your journey and Jerry’s journey. I read so much hope here, even in the midst of the heartache. I appreciate your vulnerability in the telling and it makes life and death so much more approachable. What grace God gives in both times! I love you already even though we just met. Bless you.

  4. Carolyn, I appreciated that article so much. My husband left this earth one year ago in june. So many things you spoke about Jerry doing was similar to Bill it brought it all back. I used to say to him “if you are going to groan you can’t come with me”. We were married just short of 60yrs. Yes there is a hole there. Thank you so much

    1. Bless you, Ruth. Thank you for writing. There is a hole, but I’m finding space now for joy also. I hope you are too.

  5. Thank you, Carolyn, for sharing. Your insights are valuable to me as I watch my mom’s slow leave-taking from Alzheimers.

    1. It’s a very hard and long goodbye. But there’s always a little “there” there. Try to believe that at some level, the real Mom is still present.

  6. Love when you speak of crossing the border between this side and the other while Jerry was still here. It is so real and viable and wonderful. My brother, Rich, was very dear to Jerry, and I was blessed to meet Jerry when I came out there while Rich was in a coma before he died. And yet through Rich I feel I knew Jerry quite well over many years of listening to stories and sharing by phone which we did often. Jerry was (is) a marvelous man, and heaven is richer for his being there. I often wonder what tasks God has for the likes of Rich and Jerry on the other side.

    Lori sent me your reflection – thought I would enjoy it which I did very much. Thank you for writing it.

    1. Jerry, your coment means a lot to me. Because of Rich’s stories we feel we knew you as well. He loved to talk about your Indian spirituality and your career as a law enforcer. He was so proud to be your brother!

  7. Carolyn, I have never read an article about the passing of a loved one that moved me into the past when my loved ones went to be with Jesus. You are amazing! Would like to hug you right now! We do move on but the pain is still with us because they cannot be on earth with us but if we could ask them I believe they would prefer their heavenly home. I do believe they love us as ever and are awaiting our homecoming. I will always keep your article. Jerry was a wonderful man!

    1. Dear, dear Audrey. I’d like to hug you too! I’m gla I captured what you also felt, sweet friend of my youth.

  8. I love how even through all that he still strived to share what he could with you. I admire your tenacity to hone in and hear and understand what you could, of what he was saying, and experiencing. Thank you so much for sharing this. I have two parents in a dementia facility.

    Blessings on your journey,
    -Gwen

    1. And on your own. It’s a very long, hard row to hoe. But God is present, even in that darkness. Thank you for writing.

  9. Crying. And smiling. This is so powerful! Brilliant to record him. My mom works in memory care and I would love to share this with her people! Thank you for articulating your new space.

  10. Dear Beth, feel free to share, of course. I love it when others are touched by something I write. It’s not my brilliance, though. When it happens I know It’s pure grace.

  11. Carolyn, your words are full of grace and poignancy. I just wished we lived closer, because I am confident it would be a true blessing to sit down for a cup of tea. May God bless you in your continuing journey. I am learning from you how to lean in to each moment.

  12. Carolyn, my husband and I are also getting closer to leaving this life … Rick had a massive health issue last year and ended with having hi stomach removed. All is well, but I hear your words and your heart and maybe more than many, I understand them … Emmanuel, my friend.

  13. This is so moving, Carolyn. I know someday my husband and I will part on this earth. Thank you for paving the way with courage and grace.

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