Little did I know it would be my last visit with my beloved Grandpa. The Lord has lavished the riches of His Grace on me countless times throughout my life, but this was an unexpected measure of His majesty. On this day, July 16, 2008, God methodically orchestrated my presence at Grandpa’s bedside as he took his final breath. It was a deliberate effort on God’s part and a defining moment in my spiritual awareness of God’s sovereignty.
My Grandparents have always lived in Virginia making it difficult for our busy family to arrange visits from Ohio. But we had just spent the previous Thanksgiving with both of them. Our time together proved to be rich with enlightenment as Grandpa surprised us with an in-depth accounting of his experience at Normandy as an Air Force pilot.
“I remember when we were roused out of bed at 2:00 a.m. for an emergency briefing,” my Grandpa recounted. “We knew immediately it was a serious mission because the night before General Eisenhower had made a personal visit to our base and took the time to shake each of our hands and thank us for our service.”
Grandpa was referring to June 6, 1944. D-Day.
“We put more than three hundred C-47’s into the air that night loaded with paratroopers packed down with supplies…each man bearing almost twice his weight,” Grandpa recalled. “Our mission required six hours of night and day flying in very bad weather. It was a long and tense day.”
As Grandpa delivered the story on Thanksgiving Day, I observed with reverence his strong stature, tan complexion boasting barely a wrinkle and stylish black hair revealing only a hint of grey. I was in awe that this man of ninety years still looked so amazing.
And now, only eight months later, I found myself at Grandpa’s bedside as he lay in the hospital. As I held the gentle, silky hand of this decorated United States Air Force Colonel, I was overcome by the fact that the same hands had flown C-47’s dropping paratroopers and supplies over the beaches of Normandy on that infamous day over sixty-four years ago. When Grandpa had shared his D-Day experience during that November visit I was so grateful that my husband and three children were in the room. My kids loved their great-grandfather and this glimpse into history had been a priceless experience for all of us and a blessing to celebrate on Thanksgiving.
Looking at Grandpa now, I was overcome by his dignity despite his helplessness. My Grandpa was the epitome of bravery; not unlike all our wonderful service men and women. He loved to fly and had mastered enormous aircraft during his thirty-year tenure in the USAF. He also married, raised a family and lived around the world in many cultures. At this moment, which would ultimately be his last mission on earth, this hero of mine seemed more courageous than ever. Grandpa found himself up against an enemy that could not be conquered. A stroke and massive brain hemorrhage was slowly taking over the vitality of this WWII veteran, beloved husband of sixty-three years, adoring father of three, dear grandfather of six and revered great-grandfather of seven.
I looked up at the machine next to his bed–heart rate ninety-two, blood pressure 160/60, oxygen level ninety-one, and respiratory rate twenty-one. These were solid vitals. My Grandpa was as healthy as an ox—except for the bleeding. Grandpa was taking his last flight, but this time God was at the controls.
My mom had received the call about 6:30 pm the night before about Grandpa being rushed to the hospital. We were six and a half hours away and had to patiently wait to hear from the doctor. It wasn’t until 9:30 pm when the call came. The news was grave. The stroke and subsequent bleeding had sent him into a coma. Now a ventilator was the only thing keeping him alive. He could arrest at any time. At this point it was a race against the clock for us to drive to Virginia and get to Grandpa. We also had to pick up my Grandma in her assisted living facility and get her to the hospital. She was unable to drive so we needed to make sure she would have the opportunity to see Grandpa as soon as possible.
My Grandma is eighty-six years old. Although her mind is sharp and full of life, she carries on her fragile frame the burden of several health issues – low blood pressure, epilepsy, thyroid disease and arthritic knees to name a few. Due to the strain of these ailments, Grandma has many physical limitations that keep her homebound and in a wheelchair. Grandpa, in his excellent health, had been taking care of her for years. He was her knight in shining armor. She relied on him for everything.
I put a call into my Grandma. .
“Grandpa’s in good hands, Shel. Everything will be fine,” she said confidently.
“We had a really good day together,” she continued. “Grandpa woke up and said, ‘Jan, we are going to wash clothes today.’ So that is what we did. We did all the laundry; we laughed and talked all day. It was a really good day. Before you know it, Grandpa will be home.”
I bit by tongue to keep from crying. My heart ached because I knew deep inside that Grandpa wouldn’t be back. My Grandma’s innocent optimism only inflamed the wound.
God pulled all the strings on our drive to Virgina. At 5:30 am we pulled safely into the parking garage of Fairfax Hospital in Virginia. God had delivered. As we made our way through the hospital I kept glancing at my Mom. The thought of watching her walk into that room and see her Dad laying lifeless in a coma was suffocating. Despite my anxiety, I also felt a strange sense of peace because I knew God was all around us.
Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit read the sign. We were there.
I don’t know who I looked at first, Grandpa or my Mom when we stepped into room seven. My mind was struggling to comprehend and reconcile the reality of the situation. All I could do was silently pray and thank God for getting us to Grandpa.
“He’s had a massive brain bleed,” said the attending nurse. “There are no reflexes, his pupils are not responding and the damage done is irreparable.”
As much as I had hoped to hear something different, the stark truth was that Grandpa would not rebound from this. Now it was only a matter of getting Grandma to the hospital to see him. “No heroics” were Grandpa’s wishes in his living will. The ventilator that was keeping him alive would ultimately have to be removed so that his wishes could be honored.
Frank and I left to pick up my Grandma; leaving my Mom to spend some alone time with her Dad. She was a half hour away and at 6:30 am, Washington D. C. rush hour was in full force.
Please, Lord, can you keep the roads clear and safely get us to Grandma and then bring all of us back to the hospital in time to see Grandpa.
Once again, God delivered. Frank and I made it to Grandma’s place in just over thirty minutes. My stomach was in knots and my hands were trembling. How on earth would we be able to tell this beautiful bride of sixty-three years that her soul-mate was leaving?
Lord, please give us the strength…
Frank had called ahead and asked the staff at the assisted living facility to have Grandma dressed, fed and ready to go to the hospital. When we arrived we let a few of the staff know we were going to have to break some very bad news and asked that they be on the alert. Grandma had already had an epileptic seizure the night before from the stress of Grandpa being taken away in the ambulance. What I wasn’t prepared for was the immediate breakdown of the staff members. When they learned “Mr. Bergum” was going to die they all immediately began to cry and fall apart. I was annoyed. My only concern at the moment was my Grandma and her well-being as we broke this tragic news. My focus left me callous towards these poor people’s feelings. I wondered how they would be able to help us with Grandma if they couldn’t keep it together.
I took in another deep breath. Exhaling was not an option. Frank and I took the elevator to the second floor apartment where Grandma was waiting. Everything within me was trembling.
Holy Spirit, please speak for us…
We knocked on her door and were immediately greeted with the warm, infectious smile of Rosie, the nurse who had gotten Grandma up and dressed.
“She’s waiting for you in the other room,” Rosie said kindly.
When I turned the corner, Grandma was standing with her back to me holding on to her walker. I approached gently from behind and kissed her on the cheek.
“Who’s that? Oh, Shel…what are you doing here?’ she questioned.
I immediately began to cry. How quick I had been to judge the staff for their weakness. God teaches humility whenever He chooses… I couldn’t stop the tears so I backed away allowing Frank to greet her.
“Hi, Jan,” he said warmly.
“Oh Frank, dear. Hello.”
I looked over at Rosie and whispered, “Grandpa’s not going to make it.”
A look of horror came across her face as she stared at Grandma.
“How’s Grandpa?” Grandma fearfully questioned.
Frank put his arm around her gently and said, “He’s not good.”
Grandma looked over at me. I shook my head, held back tears with all my might and just embraced her. Somehow the words came out.
“I’m so sorry, Grandma. He’s not going to make it. I’m so sorry.”
Grandma began crying and shaking uncontrollably. As I held this frail body in my arms I could do nothing but pray.
Oh, Lord, why does she have to suffer this unexpected loss?
“Why did it have to happen so fast?” Grandma barely managed to speak. “What am I going to do now? How can I live without him?”
Her words were heartbreaking. A sixty-three year friendship was about to end. We sat Grandma down. I knelt in front of her.
“Grandma, we need to get some food in you so you can take your medicine. Grandpa is waiting for you at the hospital.”
“When did he pass?” she whispered.
“Grandma, he is still alive,” I said.
“A machine is helping him breath,” said Frank. “But he can’t breathe without it.”
“Well, that’s almost worse than being dead isn’t it?!” Grandma said with more strength than before.
It was imperative that Grandma take her medicine with food before we left. I put some Cheerios in a bowl and one of the staff girls put her medicine in some applesauce. Between the two of us we tried to convince her to eat.
Lord, this is too much. Help her to eat so we can get her to Grandpa…
Suddenly, this military wife stopped crying, sat up straight and put on an attitude of resolve. She demonstrated as much poise under pressure as her honored Veteran husband. She ate the Cheerios and applesauce and took all of her medicine. She was determined to get to her husband.
The drive back to the hospital with Grandma was a blur. It took forty-five minutes and seemed like eternity. Grandma was strong the whole way…she was amazing.
When we arrived at the hospital, Frank put her in a wheel chair and we made our way up to ICU. In empty silence we pushed Grandma into room seven. Words cannot describe that moment of watching my delicate, yet beautiful Grandmother come upon her loving spouse who lay helpless in the hospital bed. Their greeting impressed upon the rest of us the stark reality that a beloved love story was in its last chapter. I tried to imagine what was going through my dear Grandma’s mind. I could only guess; and that seemed shallow at best. I am lucky to have a loving husband of eighteen years and the thought of losing him is incomprehensible.
In an instant, three generations of women began falling to pieces around the bedside of a man who had positively influenced all of us over the years in innumerable ways. And there stood Frank; a pillar of strength in the middle of all the emotional upheaval. Thankfully, God created Frank with a spirit of compassion and a servant’s heart. Without hesitation, he wrapped his arms around me first and absorbed every sob with gentleness and love before consoling my Mom and Grandma.
Although we had only been in the room for a short time, the nursing shift changed and a new attendant entered the room. Her name was Kimberly and she had a very calming presence about her. She explained to my Grandma the severity of Grandpa’s hemorrhage. She gently reiterated that the damage from the bleeding was irreversible and reminded Grandma that his living will had a “do not resuscitate” clause. Grandma understood what had to be done.
She looked at my mom with incredible resolve and said, “Okay then, let’s do it. I’m ready.”
Just like that Grandma had given the okay to remove the ventilator. After sixty-three years of sharing in a beautiful covenant together, Grandma wasn’t about to withhold the wishes of her soul-mate or attempt to control the circle of life. She was ready to let Grandpa go home because God was calling him. Her selflessness left me awestruck.
The assumption was that once the ventilator was removed Grandpa would pass rather quickly as he would be unable to breathe on his own. We were asked to leave the room while the procedure was performed. It was 9:15 a.m.
Lord, please give Grandma strength as she says goodbye…
As we waited for the nurse to finish I prepared myself to go back into room seven and say goodbye to Grandpa. Things were happening so quickly that I didn’t really have time to process anything. None of us did.
When we returned Grandpa was taking deep, snoring breaths on his own. It was 9:30 am. I prayed several Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s in my heart. I asked God to welcome Grandpa with open arms as he entered His Kingdom. Grandma sat in her wheelchair right at her groom’s side; only able to touch his hand. The rest of us stood around the bed in silence; each lost in our own thoughts.
Five minutes, ten minutes, an hour, two hours…Grandpa was still breathing with vitals as strong as ever. Kimberly told us that can happen sometimes and that Grandpa could live for many more hours. This was taking a toll on Grandma. She had gotten no sleep the night before and sitting in the hospital at his bedside was physically, emotionally and spiritually draining. It was decided after four hours of no change in Grandpa’s vitals, that in the best interest of her health it would be wise to take Grandma home to rest.
Everyone was exhausted. I offered to stay with Grandpa so my Mom could be with Grandma and make sure she was okay. Frank drove them home and I settled in for a long afternoon – just me and Grandpa. It was 1:00 p.m.
Grabbing a chair, I settled in right next to his bed. The room was still except for his breathing. God’s presence was thick in the air around us. Peace settled in my soul. I exhaled.
“Grandpa, thank you for all you’ve done for me in my life,” I gently whispered. “Thank you for serving our country well.”
I began journaling about the experience. It was important to me that I capture every moment of Grandpa’s final time on earth in vivid detail. Eventually, I succumbed to my exhaustion and dozed off; lulled to sleep by his rhythmic snoring. Around 2:00 pm I called for Kimberly. Grandpa’s mouth and lips were cracked and dry. I was hoping she could moisten them. Kimberly obliged. It was comforting to watch her gently swab a sponge with moisturizer around his tongue and mouth. She asked if I wanted to do it. Of course I jumped at the chance. As I moved the sponge across his lips I lost myself in thought as I recalled the graceful hymns this beautiful tenor used to sing at church.
Grandpa bit down on the sponge. I was startled.
“Why did he do that?” I asked Kimberly.
“It is an involuntary reflex,” she explained. “It’s the sucking reflex we are all born with as babies.”
I sighed in disappointment. For a brief moment I thought a miracle recovery was going to take place. Kimberly obviously sensed the letdown.
“I’m sorry. I know it’s hard,” she tried to console.
We then shared experiences of being with loved ones at their bedside when they die. I told her I was blessed to be in the room when my husband’s Grandma of ninety years passed away.
“It was a beautiful experience and a rare gift to be a witness of life coming full circle,” I explained.
Kimberly agreed and shared how she had been blessed with being at her father’s bedside when he died at the young age of fifty-five. I thanked God for sending yet another angel in Kimberly to guide us through this journey…
After Kimberly left, Grandpa and I had the room to ourselves again. His head was getting warmer from a neuro-fever he had developed from the bleeding in his brain so I dabbed the sweat gently from his brow and cheeks. His vitals were still strong. It was 3:19 pm. – six hours after the ventilator had been removed. Grandpa was still holding on. I wondered if he was waiting for the rest of the family to arrive.
“Grandpa, maybe you are waiting for Uncle Les and Aunt Candy. They are doing their best to get here quickly. They love you very much.”
I decided to step out of room seven to find a snack and a book to read to Grandpa. I was hoping to find a book I could read aloud to him. 90 Minutes in Heaven, by Don Piper caught my eye. Hmm. I picked it up and read the back cover. “Offers comfort and hope for those facing loss or uncertainty.” That was all I needed to see. This was the book God wanted me to buy.
It was 3:50 p.m. when I got back to Grandpa’s room. My Mom called.
“How is he?” she asked.
“Well, he has a fever and his blood pressure is a little higher than before. But all his other vitals are still strong.”
“Okay. Grandma is still sleeping. I don’t think she has the strength to make it back to the hospital. Frank and I will head over soon.”
After hanging up with my Mom I made note of Grandpa’s vitals again. They were still strong. His fever lingered and the snoring was rather loud, but other than that things were status quo. I let him know that my Mom was coming back soon and that his other children were thinking of him. I began to read to him.
Just after 4:00 p.m., the monitor next to his bed began beeping. His heart rate had increased and was now fluctuating between one hundred twenty-five and one hundred thirty-five. His blood pressure had elevated and his oxygen level had dropped from eighty-six to seventy-six. Grandpa’s head was really warm. I nervously pushed the call button. It was 4:10 p.m. when Kimberly came in the room.
“His levels are changing drastically,” I said. “Should I call my mom to come now? They are at least thirty minutes away.”
“You know, it is so hard to tell. His vitals are definitely changing,” Kimberly said. “But he could also maintain for hours at an oxygen level as low as fifty. I wish I could say for sure, but maybe call her and let her know to start heading over.”
I left the room to call my Mom. It was 4:16 p.m. – exactly seven hours since the ventilator had been removed.
“Mom, I think you need to come right away. Grandpa’s oxygen levels have dropped ten points in five minutes and his heart rate is really high. Kimberly is not certain what will happen, but things are changing.”
“Okay, we are on our way,” she said.
I went back in room seven and held Grandpa’s hand. As I caressed his long fingers, I silently reminisced about the beautiful songs Grandpa used to play on his fiddle. Looking at his gold wedding band, I prayed that Grandma would be okay without him.
Picking up the book again, I said to him, “Grandpa, listen to this part.”
It was from chapter three of 90 Minutes in Heaven entitled, “Heavenly Music” in which the author was describing his true life experience in heaven:
“My most vivid memory of heaven is what I heard. I can only describe it as a holy swoosh of wings. But I’d have to magnify that thousands of times to explain the effect of the sound in heaven. ..Melodies of praise filled the atmosphere…Hallelujah! Praise! Glory to God! Praise to the King!”
“Is this what you are experiencing, Grandpa?” I asked. “Are you hearing these melodies in Heaven?”
The lifeless hand that I was holding suddenly squeezed mine.
“Did you just squeeze my hand Grandpa?” I exclaimed anxiously, while simultaneously arguing with myself that it had to have been another involuntary reflex. I attempted to pull my hand away from his to see what would happen. His fingers curled again around mine.
“You are squeezing my hand Grandpa!” I cried out. “You do hear me…and you are affirming that you hear the sounds of Heaven! Please hold on a little longer. My Mom is on her way to see you.”
Unwilling to let go of his hand, I sat in awe of what was taking place. What were the odds of me finding the 90 Minutes in Heaven book and coming upon the section where the author was describing his experience in Heaven? There was no coincidence. God had planned all of it…every last detail.
The monitor next to the bed began to beep louder. Blood pressure over two-hundred, heart rate one hundred-fifty, and oxygen forty-five… I panicked.
“Are you tired Grandpa? Are you ready to go home now?” I asked.
He squeezed his silky fingers around mine one more time; another affirmation.
“It’s okay if you’re tired, Grandpa. You can say goodbye,” I said reassuringly. Inside my heart was pounding because all I could think of was that my Mom wasn’t going to make it back in time.
Kimberly came running in. Grandpa stopped snoring. His breathing became shallow and soft. His heart rate dropped under seventy and his oxygen level was twenty-three.
“This is it isn’t it?” I asked Kimberly.
“Yes…I’m afraid so. I’m sorry this happened so fast. I wish I could have known.”
“It’s okay. Please don’t be sorry. No one knew.” God knew.
I let go of his hand and moved over to the other side of the bed.
“Grandpa, we all love you,” I said as I caressed his forehead. “Mom loves you, Grandma loves you, Uncle Les loves you, Aunt Candy loves you and the whole family loves you.”
“Kimberly, I have to call my Mom. I know I am not supposed to use the phone in here but I need to let her talk to him before it’s too late. She needs the opportunity to say one last goodbye.”
“Absolutely – I’ll leave the room and you do what you need to do.”
God dialed the phone for me. It was 4:33 p.m.
“Mom, I’m sorry. Grandpa isn’t going to last much longer. He’s taken a rapid turn for the worst. I’m going to put the phone up to his ear so you can say goodbye.”
Placing the phone up to Grandpa’s ear, I listened in sorrow as my Mom said goodbye to her Dad. Although they were miles apart in proximity, it was as if time stopped and God bridged the gap so that a daughter could love on her father one last time.
Kimberly came back in the room. Grandpa hung on for a couple more minutes until two deep breaths signaled his last flight had peacefully come to an end. It was 4:35 p.m. This time God landed the plane. I’m certain it was right at Heaven’s door. Christ undoubtedly was the first person to shake Grandpa’s hand and welcome him to His Kingdom with the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Kimberly tenderly approached me. “You know how I was telling you about my experience with my Dad and his passing?” she asked gently. “Well, today just happens to be his birthday. I was just thinking how neat it would be if my Dad were to have greeted your Grandpa just now. Kind of ironic isn’t it?”
“I am sure they did meet, Kimberly. And considering everything else God has done today, I don’t think it’s ironic at all. If it happened, it was definitely on purpose. Thank you for everything you have done for our entire family today.”
Kimberly left the room so I could be alone with Grandpa. As I looked upon this man of such impeccable character and strength, I realized the significance of him being in room seven. It had been just over seven hours since the ventilator was removed. Grandpa had held on, able to breathe on his own for seven hours. And in those seven hours God chose to lavish His Grace on me in remarkable ways – the biggest of which was the opportunity to hold the hand of my hero as I walked him home.
As if these realizations of God’s wonder weren’t enough, I remembered Grandma telling me earlier in the day that Grandpa was supposed to read Psalm 23 at their Bible Study the next morning. God still planned on Grandpa reading that Psalm. It just wasn’t going to be at Bible study. Instead it would be in front of a multitude of friends and loved ones up in Heaven. You have to wonder why we ever question God’s ways in all their perfection…
I closed my eyes and let the profound meanings and beautiful moments of Grandpa’s last flight take root in my heart. I then imagined Grandpa’s sweet voice bravely pronouncing to the cloud of witnesses above, “Even though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, I feared no evil, for He was with me; His rod and His staff, they comforted me.”
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