Part 1 The End of a Life Journey: The Big Move.
With my father's health failing we were finally able to convince him that living closer to my brother and I, we would be able to help care for him better. Moving him here from Bullhead, Arizona, became quite the family project. My two sisters (Deborah and Donna) came in from out of town to help pack him up, along with help from my husband (Mike), brother-in-law (Alex) and brother (Charlie). They emptied the house, paired his belongings down to a trailer full of his treasures, and left behind an overflowing commercial size dumpster. That was after gifting all the neighbors and giving big donations to the Salvation Army.
My dad wanted to still have his independence, which we respected, so we found him a sweet little apartment in our small town, Del Norte, Colorado. The landlord overlooked their “One Dog Only” rule and allowed him to have both of his furry children (which I am convinced is why he still had the will to live). Elaine, the owner of the building, bent over backwards to help my father in every way she could: from paperwork, to advice, and she even made offers to drive him to appointments if we weren't available.
Downsizing my father was very timely. It's amazing how many treasures one can accumulate in a life time. The transition went fairly smooth. My father seemed to enjoy his new surroundings. It was a special time setting up his new cozy apartment with all the basics one really needs, including leaving his vehicle behind. Alex and Mike found him a wonderful second-hand electric wheel chair.
Electric Wheelchair 101
I was helping my father unpack and I got this notion, “Hey Dad, why don't you ride your new wheel chair down with me to walk the dogs and empty some trash?” “Okay,” Dad said as he climbed in the chair. I put one small dog, Baby, on his lap and grabbed a bag of trash and the leash of his second dog, Scooby. We got in the hallway and, unbeknownst to us, the chair was set on high. Dad pushed the lever forward and shot down the hall like a rocket! He was swerving from side to side, yelling obscenities all the way down the hall with what could only be described as a severe case of Tourettes. I'm running behind him with a big trash bag bouncing in the air and poor Scooby sliding, not walking, behind me. “Dad, let go of the lever!!!” My father reaches the elevator in record time, swings into the glass walled waiting area and almost catapults himself through the window. I run up behind him with my heart racing. Before I could say a word, the elevator door slides open and my Dad shoots in, hand still full throttle on the lever. He slams into the wall with the wheels still spinning. The carpet began to get sucked up into the wheels! “Hand off the lever, Dad!” Unfortunately, that was my father's introduction to the electric wheel chair and to his new neighbors. We had fun practicing with that a few days later, once we could both breathe again! Although it scared the heck out of me that night, I can't tell this story with out laughing out loud now. I know that if I had a camera that evening I would be a rich woman today!
Calling All Angels
We got my dad all kinds of special assistance through Medicaid, which took a little work. He made about one hundred dollars over the limit to qualify. This glitch would have prevented him from being able to receive thousands of dollars worth of much needed assistance. I still have a problem understanding the logic behind “the harder one works in life the more one gets penalized in the end” when it comes to government regulations. Elaine was a huge help.
My poor father was in the hospital or a doctor's office just about every day from the time he first arrived here in Colorado. Each visit exposed one more illness or disease until, in the end, he had a list of about 12 major challenges ranging from diabetes, heart problems, and prostate cancer to Parkinson's disease and kidney failure.
Thank God for my husband who was so helpful. Together, he and my father somehow turned into a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy team. I saw my father come alive whenever Mike walked in the room. It was so heart warming. My brother's wife, Merlinda, was a real Godsend. She took my dad under her wing. She was at his beck and call. Being an E.M.T., Merlinda knew what she was doing and would show up without complaint. She not only chauffeured him to doctor appointments, but was also there for those 2:00 a.m. trips into the emergency room.
The Dreaded Nursing Home Or Not
After five months of this, my father took a big fall which sent him back to the hospital. While there he said that he had a realization; he acknowledged that he could no longer live alone. This was big for my father! We all, including him, knew that it meant his next home would be the dreaded nursing home. He had already spent one complaint-filled month there after one of his previous falls. The home was actually quite nice. They had very caring attendants, nurses and therapists. It was clean, had activities, and it even had a nice little cafeteria. Best of all, it was only two houses away from Charlie and Merlinda. There was a back door right next to his room that, via a code, we could drop in at any time unannounced.
My father got weaker each day. His complications and prescriptions mounted to astronomical proportions. It was recommended that the time had come for us to start thinking about hospice.
With hospice, most doctor and hospital visits cease for the most part, as well as most medications. The hospice employees are not into prolonging life at this point, but care more about making what time you have left as comfortable as possible. This may include, but is not limited to, pain medication, massage and/or counseling. Once a person begins hospice an autopsy is not required at the time of death, as a rule.
This was also a good time for my two sisters and aunt to fly in for a few days and say their goodbyes. My father seemed to be on his last breath, but at the sight of Deborah, Donna and Joyce, he had an amazing turn around. He became coherent, communicative and even his fun sense of humor returned. They all jumped right in and took over the all night watch while showering my dad with attention. I must say how important family is in general, but especially at times like this. I think their visit revived my father a bit and may have extended his life a few weeks. We were able to sit around his bed telling stories and laughing. He even felt good enough for us to wheel him into the cafeteria for a little concert. I think some call that the “Honeymoon” period. When they left, my dad started slipping away again.
With hospice, most doctor and hospital visits cease for the most part, as well as most medications. The hospice employees are not into prolonging life at this point, but care more about making what time you have left as comfortable as possible. This may include, but is not limited to, pain medication, massage and/or counseling. Once a person begins hospice an autopsy is not required at the time of death.
Back To Basics
My brother and I decided now was the time to give up my father's apartment. This was a difficult decision to make, but a necessary one. We agreed that it was much easier doing this with our father still alive. We gave away most of his belongings to his friends and neighbors while saving just a few treasures and some mementos. Merlinda again came to the rescue. She and my brother did all the final clean up. They brought a plant to his room at the nursing home along with a few of the paintings that my mother painted of my father years ago. I brought in a boom-box along with Dean Martin's “Love Songs” CDs. Cousin Kerry brought in a few of his favorites CDs too. It was a nice break from the sports channel that was usually on.
Angel Rock Ranch
After some serious consideration, we decided to bury my father up on our property, “Angel Rock Ranch”. He liked the idea, too. Mike and I had already decided that we would love to be buried there as well. Mike and I walked our 35 acre property to find the perfect place for my father and, what would more than likely become, our family grave yard. We live in an old Caldera so there is a lot of lava rock and it took Mike several tries before he found the perfect spot. He then dug the grave in such a way that my father's head will be facing a huge rock bluff that resembles an angel with outstretched wings, hence the name of our ranc “Angel Rock Ranch.”
Researching Natural Home Burials.
We did our homework and researched natural burials in Colorado. Though this is not done very much any more, it is still legal. When we first talked to the authorities and the nursing home, their eyebrows raised! However, everyone, including the doctor, was very supportive in the end. They even seemed excited about this concept of a natural home burial. The nursing home put special instructions in my father's folder. Everyone understood that, when the time came, they would first try to reach the doctor. If she wasn't available, then the coroner could finish filling out the death certificate. It was also understood that we, the family, would move my father ourselves without involving the mortuary.
Mike researched on the computer. He began by simply typing in “Natural Green Burial” in Rio Grande County (where my father lived) and also Saguache County (where our property is located). We thought we needed to research both because he was going to die in Rio Grande County (where we would register his death certificate) and then be buried in Saguache County (where we would register the Private Burial Affidavit).
While researching, Mike found information about a well organized group that does sacred open cremations called “The End of Life Project.” They are located in Crestone, a small neighboring town. They were very helpful over the phone and also emailed us information about their project and gave us instructions on how to properly care for a body at death. Although we had decided to bury my father, rather than have him cremated, it was nice to think about that as an option. They gave us a lot of the information that we needed.
After doing more research, Mike proudly proclaimed, “Don't worry, Honey I will be the funeral director,” In the end, it was his signature that went in the box with the heading; “Signature of the Funeral Director or Person Acting As Such” on the death certificate. One does not need a special license for this title.
Having Mike do this research at a time when my thinking was a bit cloudy and my emotions and stresses were running high was a real comfort. Mike also called the two local mortuaries and one actually gave us some valuable information, such as, “if a body is not embalmed then it must be buried within 24 hours or kept refrigerated or iced”. Also that “the grave needs to be at least 4 feet deep” (I always thought that it was 6 feet) .The other mortician did his best to discourage us. He even said that it was very difficult if not impossible these days.
Getting the Death Certificate
Next we talked to the county clerk. She was a bit reluctant at first to hand over a death certificate before the person had actually died. We explained, and she also understood, that this would be a time sensitive matter. We did not want to have my father embalmed or even go to a mortuary. A death certificate is a very important document and must be treated as such. The clerk even gave me two copies along with the original and stated, “You may want to fill one out as a sample and bring it in so I can correct it. You can't make mistakes on the original.” I did this immediately. As luck would have it, my father's sister, Joyce, came to stay with us for a week at that time. I was able to ask her any questions of which I was unsure. I brought the certificate into the clerk, she looked it over carefully, and made only one correction. We asked her what we should do if he passed at night or on the weekend. She was kind enough to give us her home phone number and said to call her and she would come in and sign the death certificate and do the proper paperwork when needed.
The clerk also said that we would need my father to sign a paper in front of witnesses stating that he desired to be buried up on our property. I told her that he did say that was what he wanted and now he's in and out of consciousness. What if he passes before I'm able to have him sign the paper? She said, “You better hurry then!” We may have burned a little rubber leaving her office (not really), but we didn't waste any time typing up a statement which included signature room for two witnesses and myself. It took us about another week before my dad was coherent enough to sign. We then had the nurse put this paper in his file at the nursing home along with the death certificate that was now filled out except for the Physician and the Registrar's (Clerks) section. Just for the record, we found out that the family can also make that decision if the patient isn't able.
Private Burial Affidavit
We were also informed by the clerk that we would need to have the grave site GPSed within the first month after the burial by a sheriff or coroner. Later, we learned it could also be done by two witnesses along with the owner. A few weeks after the burial, I did call the Sheriff's Office in Saguache County and inquired about getting the grave GPSed. The sheriff was here within 45 minutes, which is about the time it takes to get from the station to our ranch. I commented, “I bet you don't have to do this too often.” and he said it was a first. He called the county clerk in Rio Grande and she sent him the necessary form (Private Burial Affidavit C.R.S. 25-2-111). The sheriff was a super nice guy and said he always liked to come out and do the first of something like this because he could go back and educate the rest of the department. There was no fee for this service. The next day, Mike and I took the affidavit to the county clerk and recorder's office in Saguache so it could be documented and filed as a legal burial. When we walked in and stated the nature of our visit the clerk said, “We just learned about this yesterday.” The sheriff had been in and explained it to them. We were charged $11.00 and she said we would receive the affidavit back in the mail after it was recorded in a day or two. I guess it really was a first because, when we received it back, the stamp noted the placement in the record book: Page 1/Line 1.
Now might be a good time to tell you that I love living in our small town! Although we are ready to retire and want to sell our sweet little business, I have no desire to leave this incredible area. There is something special about small towns. People will go out of their way to help you.
Father's Last Breath (to be continued)
This is the end of part 1. Please come back next week for part 2, which will finish this story.
Thanks for reading; I’d love to hear from you!
Organic Peddler & Peace of Art Café
Del Norte, Colorado