Shortly after Mike passes away I said I would follow up with a blog post about that day. It's been a work in progress and really tough, but here it is.
I have been holding onto the details of the day as though somehow I could hold onto Mike.
I arrived at the hospital on Monday Jan 5 around 9:00 or 9:30 a.m. expecting to help Mike and Nadine get ready to come home. It was clear, however, that Mike wasn’t doing as well as the day before. He sort of had a vacant look in his eyes. Just the day before, Mike was saying he was coming home and we all believed he was. Indeed he was going home – just not to his earthly home.
I will never forget the last moments I shared with my Dad. My mom texted me that morning and said that Dad had gone to the hospital the night before. I remembered when I was at their place the afternoon before, he struggled with his breathing and some choking but this was not out of the ordinary.
It was just the two of us alone in his hospital room. I sat and rubbed his warm and soft feet. He had such a glow to his face despite the fact I knew he had been struggling so hard to breathe. The nurse kept telling him he should take the hydra morphine to help him relax, but he refused. He just kept smiling at me despite his struggle for air.
I told him stories of all the menial things going on in my life. The lady on my strata trying to get me fined for my “tacky decorations” (her words, not mine!) and my latest encounter with the grumpy checkout lady at the grocery store. He didn’t once take his eyes off of me and just smiled. He always made me feel like everything I said was important, meanwhile he was fighting for his life.
We sat together and I just held his tiny, fragile body in my arms. Although, this certainly wasn’t the first time he had been sick and he had gone to the hospital once before, something in my heart knew that his time on Earth was coming to an end. Before I left, I kissed his forehead and said, “Thank you.” I thanked him for always making me eat my fruit and veggies as a child (and boy did I put up a fight). I thanked him for our walks along Mill Lake as we would secretly throw bread to the geese to watch them battle it out (even though this was strictly prohibited). I thanked him for helping me become a teacher and for always being proud of me. He looked at me and just smiled while we both held back the tears.
It was a really nice prayer time together at 3am the morning of the day Mike passed away. Among many things, I prayed that the Lord would surround us with angels and I thanked Him that wherever we were, was exactly where we were meant to be. I played one of our playlists from my phone and sang along with the comforting songs, including, “Lord, I need Thee”. Mike always wanted me to sing to him, but I don’t have a good voice, so I rarely sang. That morning I sang, and angels came and we knew peace more than ever before.
At about 5:30, I told Mike that we should try to get a little more sleep. He agreed, so I laid back down beside him. When I woke up about an hour later, something had changed. He was staring straight ahead. I was unable to read his eye brows and his blink, so I asked him to look toward the window in response to my questions. Ever so slowly, he moved his eyes toward the window to a series of questions including, “Are you comfortable?”. He was. The doctor came and said Mike’s potassium levels were low and he needed some saline. I put some through his tube along with some food. I told him he needed to keep his strength up if he wanted to go home later. I knew in my heart, he probably wouldn’t be going back to our home that day, but I had no idea he’d be going home to heaven.
I was away playing hockey that weekend and hadn’t had much communication with my mom. I had a feeling deep down something wasn't right but I tried not to think about it. I got home around seven o’clock sunday night. Instinctually, the first thing I do everyday when I get home is look straight in my dads direction and greet him. His welcoming smile was my favourite thing. That night when I looked in the direction of his chair and saw it was empty, I knew… Seconds later I called my mom. She reassured me everything was okay, “Dad is doing better and we hope to come home in the next couple of days. He is sleeping so you can come visit him tomorrow.”
That next morning when I got up, the first thing on my mind was Dad. I got dressed, went to the store to find the softest stuffy I could (my dad loved soft touch) and went straight to the hospital. At that moment I never knew that that stuffed zebra would become the most cherished thing I have.
When I first saw my dad it was a bit scary. He had an oxygen mask on and he was looking straight ahead, not able to make eye contact with me, and the tendons is his neck tensed every time he took a breath. Every ounce of his strength I could see was used to breath. People would have called me crazy, but I still thought he was coming home. I sat down and placed the stuffed zebra on his naked chest so he could feel the soft fur against him and proceeded to tell him, my mom and aunt about my weekend.
Around 11:30 or 12:00 I told Nadine to run home for a few minutes to get what she needed as she had been at the hospital with Mike through the night. She was reluctant to go and I kept saying, “Just go, we’ll be fine, I’m here and I’ll look after him”. She finally agreed. Madison went with her. While they were gone, I brushed Mike’s hair, got cold cloths for is forehead and sang to him. Mike loved all the old hymns and the one that I kept repeating for this very moment was “I Need Thee Every Hour”. “I need thee, Oh I need Thee, Every hour I need Thee, O bless my now my Saviour, I come to Thee…” Text: Annie S. Hawks, Music: Robert Lowry
It was only about a half an hour after Nadine left that the nurse came in and checked Mike’s vitals. His blood pressure was dropping and the nurse was giving me “the look”. He said to call Nadine to come back right away as it wouldn’t be long. I remember thinking to myself, “This guy doesn’t know Mike! Does he even have his Nursing certification? He obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about”. For four years we knew this day was coming, but when it presented itself, I was strangely shocked.
Nadine was on her way back when I called and a few minutes later came rushing into the room and Madison soon followed. I called the whole family, and one by one they filtered in — Peter, Erin, Nathan, our parents…
I went home and packed some things so I could go back to the hospital until I had to go to work. Soon after I left, I got a call. “Madison, you should come to the hospital now.” I could tell by the tone in my aunt’s voice, it wasn't good. Within minutes I was back at the hospital and when I ran into the room I could tell there was a drastic decline. I looked straight at my mom and the look on her face was enough to know that this was it. I couldn't tell you what I was feeling, I just instantly lost all strength and dropped to the floor. I began to scream. Feeling nauseous, I started gagging. Thankfully my mom was able to get me into the bathroom to calm me down. Head in the toilet, we prayed together that I would gain the strength to be strong for my dad in his last moments. I knew he wouldn't want to hear or see me that way—I quickly calmed down and went back into the room.
Elanna told me what the nurse said. I told Elanna that the nurse didn’t know Mike, “Mike’s a fighter. He can recover.” She said, “I know.” I called Mike’s sister Aileen to tell her what the nurse said. I put the phone up to Mike’s ear so she could say something to him. It was only the day before, while on the phone with Aileen and Pat, I asked Mike if his sisters needed to come that night because they couldn’t get a flight until two days later. He said he was okay, no need to rush … he said it wasn’t an emergency.
I laid down beside my dad on his bed. My head on his chest, holding on tight to the soft, stuffed zebra. I wasn't sure how long it would be, but I knew he was on his way. I found myself gazed at my dad’s breathing, listening to my mom singing and talking to him. His breathing was slowly decreasing, becoming less frequent. Soon he became totally still, and his breathing became non existent. I looked at my mom, both of us knew he was gone, heaven’s gates opened before him.
The nurse was right after all, it was Mike’s time to go. He didn’t struggle, there was no gasping, there was no pain. Mike simply transitioned from this life to the next … It really was a perfect ending … and a perfect beginning.
Saying good bye was surreal. I remember thinking he was on his way but he could still come back. I remember thinking how surprisingly strong I felt. I remember thinking how good he smelled, there was still a hint of peppermint body wash from the shower Jackie (one of his caregivers) gave him on Saturday. She would have also used the peppermint balm she always rubbed, with so much love, on his neck, shoulders and upper back.
At the end of our visit on Sunday, I told my dad I would see him tomorrow. Sadly, I only was able to see his lifeless body—he passed just before I got there. The next time I see him will be in heaven and I can’t wait to run around the lake with him and rile up the geese. I love him and miss him more than I could ever express in words.
I was at work. I took a quick break to check my phone and I had a message from my aunt. She asked me to call her as soon as possible, but when I did, it was too late. She told me my dad had passed away. When I got to the hospital, everyone was gathered around his bed. Less than 24 hours earlier, we gathered around his bed, visiting, laughing, talking about him going home. Leah rubbed lotion on his feet.
I held my mom tight. She cried … we all cried of course, but we laughed a little too. We talked about how my dad, just the day before, made reference to a Seinfeld episode regarding his small hospital room. It took us all a long time to say good bye. Eventually we had to leave. We had to walk away and it was the hardest thing we ever did.
Later, at home, I mentioned how impactful it was to see what was left behind - a shell of a man. A shell that housed an unbelievably strong, unbreakable spirit, now free … the difference between the two was so profound.
It rained the evening before. It actually poured—it woke us up from a nap. I unlocked the wheels of Mike’s bed and turned it as much as I could toward the window. “Look Mike, it’s pouring rain. Isn’t that great?” Mike just loved the sound of the rain and it wasn’t until the next day after he had passed away that I thought of something he had mentioned a few times over the years. He told me that W.C. Fields’ wife turned the sprinkler on the roof the night Fields laid in bed dying, so he could hear for one last time his favourite sound—the sound of the falling rain.
I don’t think things will ever be the same again. I don’t think I will ever fully recover. It seems melodramatic but Mike was like my own flesh and blood brother. We had a secret world of non-verbal communication, suctioning, feeding tubes (and a host of other stuff that comes along with ALS). We knew each other’s secrets and had a bond that went beyond the “brother/sister in law” norm. The saying, “blood is thicker than water” didn’t pertain to me and Mike. I would have done anything for him and he for me.
I am happy for him, as I picture him joyfully moving freely; unencumbered by this earthly shell. At the same time, I am empty, missing my lifetime friend and brother.
Mike made life interesting and fun. He was one of the smartest people I have known. He was funny and he made me laugh and I made him laugh.
We are doing okay most of the time, but the sadness grows thicker, kind of like mud. Some times I feel like I’m mucking around, waist deep in it. I know we’ll be okay, but we’ll never be the same again.
In memory of Michael David Sands
Leah rubbing Mike's feet at the hospital the day before Mike passed
In the afternoon of the day Mike passed away, while we were all sitting together at home, I sat in Mike's chair. All of a sudden I was moving into a reclined position - Leah had the controls. She laid me back, covered me with a blanket, rolled up my pant legs, took off my socks and rubbed lotion on my feet. No words were said. Wow! is all I can say now. I'm so choked up thinking about it. It was so precious and it ministered to me in such an amazing way.
Mike's All-Star team, his home care givers: Shuna, Jackie, Jon and Shannon
There were more, but these four were his main care-givers...the best of the best!