A lot can change in three weeks, and it did. Sam could stand with assistance, take a few steps with his walker over to his recliner, enjoy Wheel of Fortune, and go to church when I left. He could still dress himself with a little help, and boss me around like an expert. He could eat three meals a day and enjoy a morning cup of coffee.
The day I left him at Sanctuary Hospice House for respite, we rolled him to his room. He was too tired to sit up, he told us, and wanted to lie down. In that moment, I knew I'd never take him home.
"You better eat while I'm gone. If you don't, you're gonna be too weak to go home," I told him. "I'm gonna be upset with you if you go on a hunger strike."
Sam gave me a tired smile. "I'll do the best I can," he promised.
The hospice personnel kept me informed with updates that steadily broke my heart. He wasn't eating. He was losing weight. Less responsive. Not swallowing water.
The hardest thing I ever did was stay in place 6,000 miles away while Sam drifted toward eternity. I sure hope the three week long sacrifice was worth it.
Ryan, my son, loved Sam with all his heart. He drove from Atlanta and spent several days with him, hoping to help him hang on. Sam rallied remarkably, and they had one good day out of the four he was here. Ryan dressed him, drank coffee with him, and spent time with him.
It was the last time Ryan would ever see Sam alive. I'm so grateful for the few "awake" hours they had together.
My friends and church family visited Sam often, and tried to prepare me. "Sam looks terrible," they told me. "He's at death's door."
When I arrived, the nurses tried to prepare me, too. "He hasn't eaten more than a bite or two since Ryan left. He won't drink at all. He looks bad."
I've seen a lot of sick people in my almost thirty-year career as a physician, but I couldn't have anticipated the reality of seeing someone I love so very near death. Mere hours after my return home, I stood at his bedside, choked back tears, and turned to the nurses. "I'm not gonna be able to take him home, am I?" I asked. They shook their heads and I saw tears glisten in their eyes, too.
A part of me thought I could will Sam to come back from the valley of the shadow of death, but it was a false hope born of desperation. Over the weekend, I read most of the New Testament, Isaiah, and the Psalms to Sam. I sang hymns. I prayed. I begged.
Sam's relentless trek toward heaven would not be slowed. In the depths of my heart, I didn't want him to be delayed, but I didn't want to let go, either. By Sunday afternoon, I reeled from lack of sleep, and finally went home to rest for a while. I needed those few hours to make it through the next two days.
Yesterday afternoon, I had just returned to his room when his breathing changed. I sat at his bedside, my two dogs curled up at his feet, and thanked him for all the good he'd done. For loving my son, being willing to try all the crazy schemes I cooked up, for protecting me, teaching me so much about gardening, livestock, and the land. For teaching me to shoot a gun, set a trot line, and how to catch two fish with a single cast. . .
His periods of apnea steadily increased until his breathing finally stopped. At 4:55 pm, Sam stepped from this world into the wonder and beauty of eternity. He shed the frail body that had encased his soul for eighty-seven years as he did. He has a new body now, and white robes, and crowns he's probably already left at the feet of Jesus. He's seen our Lord, which was what he most wanted, and his baby daughter that died, and his beloved Jamie.
I'm sure gonna miss him, but I'm comforted with the assurance that I'll see him again, as well as by the Bible passage Sam loved best:
"Let not your heart be troubled. . . In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you until myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. . . I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." John 14:1-3, 6 kjv
Visitation is Friday, November 10th 12:30 to 2 pm with memorial service to follow in the choir room at Hope Church, Tupelo.
Sam always thought cut flowers were a waste of money, so we arranged for a special "Sam's Fund" at Global Outreach at his request. Marla Nunnelee (daughter of his long-time friend and coffee-drinking buddy, David Coleman) will administer it and use the funds where most needed. We thought about giving it a fancy name, but Sam always wanted to be "just plain Sam," so that's how we named his fund.
In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to "Sam Wiley Memorial Fund" by mailing your check or money order to: Global Outreach/ PO Box 1, Tupelo MS 38802. Be sure to put "Sam's Fund #5136" in the "for" line.