by Pat Butler

Virage is the French word for “sharp curve”—something my life took when I received the dread phone call: my father was losing his battle with lung cancer. My sister called first, in tears, then my brother Paul, calm but gently affirming, “It's time to come home.”

In one day, I organized my affairs in France (where I live) to leave for I didn't know how long. I flew out of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, on Christmas Eve, and arrived twenty hours later at my parents' home in time for dinner. In a jet lag haze, I absorbed my father's change in condition and the boisterous family gathering. I excused myself from the table early to go to my room, have a good cry, and fall into a coma sleep.

Just a few days before, the doctors had given my father a month to live, at best. Terminating all treatment, they recommended hospice care. The day after Christmas we met with the hospice nurse. The family decision was unanimous: we would care for Dad at home as long as we could.

Paul and I moved in. The other family members mobilized to relieve us on weekends or weekdays when they could get free. The hospice people taught us how to manage Dad's care, and God's grace held us. We watched my father endure without complaint the loss of one ability after another. The hospice people brought in one piece of equipment after another. We put gloves on his cold hands and a scarf around his neck. We fed him chocolate mints after dinner. We played his favorite CD's. We watched a jazz series together, or at least parts of it, falling asleep on the couch one by one at the end of wearying days. In the mornings, awakened by Dad's coughing, we gathered in his bedroom to watch the cardinals at the bird feeder. The oxygen machine's dull hiss and drone played relentlessly in the background, and each day we maneuvered around its spaghetti-like cord, splayed about the house.

Certainly it was a wrenching time of great difficulty, but one filled with grace, dignity and beauty. Thankfully, my father was never in much pain, and faced death with courage. He had no fear. A devout Catholic, he simply waited for God to take him.

One morning, it seemed to be the end. Paul called the out-of-state siblings to come. My mother called the family priest. Instead, we spent three days together as a family, alternately filing in and out of Dad's bedroom, and bantering or crying with one another. Then, with the gentle warning of the hospice nurse that “it would probably be tonight,” we pulled chairs around his bed, prayed, cried, and waited.

The end came the next morning. My sister noticed a change in Dad's labored breathing, and we gathered around the bed to watch him leave, saying our goodbyes, weeping. He left surrounded by the family he loved, to whom he had given so much, and from whom he had earned so much love and respect.

His legacy to me personally is incalculable. If I had only what he taught me in dying, I have a great example of faith and courage. I don't yet have the words for all I experienced, but Henri Nouwen, writing about the death of his mother, captured it well for me:

“I want to write about these last days with my mother. So much happened in those days that I fear it will escape me in the whirlwind of everyday life unless I can find words to frame my experience. I want to express how during those days her love, her care, her faith and her courage became more visible to me than ever before, and how I came to know in a new way what it meant to be her son. But it is so difficult and painful. Every word seems to be the wrong word, every expression seems to do violence to what I feel…I still wonder what I was feeling during those hours. I felt powerless, small and helpless, but also peaceful, strong and quiet. I was seeing and feeling something I had never seen or felt before, an experience that to be described would require words that have not yet been found: powerless yet strong, sad yet peaceful, broken yet whole. I still do not fully understand this new emotion. One thing, however, I can articulate because I felt it so clearly. I was blessed to be part of a moment of truth.” [1]

Virage …the French word for sharp curve. What we can't see while negotiating curves, we see when we clear them. What our hearts know in moments of truth, our minds find words for later. I am thankful for the beauty that I found inside this particular curve, in the midst of ashes, and for the vista and vision waiting for me on the other side.


[1] In Memoriam , by Henri Nouwen, Ave Maria Press, 1980, ISBN-0877931976

About the Author
Pat Butler lives and works in northern France, which has required lots of loss ( family and friends, familiarity and language) to gain the richness of living in a foreign culture. A native New Yorker, Pat began writing as a child. Although single, Pat's extended family—French and American—provide an endless source for stories and poems.

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