Part 3: Hal’s Death and the Celebration of Hal’s Life
On Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in the wee hours of the morning, my phone lit up with a text. Surprisingly, it was Jerry. He asked if I was still at the nursing home. I replied that I was, and that Hal had just that minute died. Jerry responded, “I know. I felt it.”
On the Friday before Hal’s death, I received a call from the education department at Saginaw Valley State University. I had been sitting on an RSVP to the annual Harold W. Peterson Excellence in Teaching Award, and they were following up. I wasn’t ready for the word to spread about Hal’s condition, so I had waited to respond. It turned out that the kindness and genuine caring of the education secretary was a great comfort. I’m so glad I answered the call!
On the Saturday before Hal’s death, he was agitated, picking at his bedclothes, removing his gown, moving continuously. He wanted the covers “just so.” He asked to use the bathroom every hour or so. His mind wandered. It was a difficult day.
On the Sunday before Hal’s death, he was awake and waiting for me with renewed energy. The day was filled with lengthy narratives and (seemingly) endless questions. For as long as I knew him, Hal was known for his “stories,” and he took a sort of pride in the fact that he told them over and over. He seemed oblivious that people wandered off when he began a repeat. By the time Hal had lived with us for a couple of years, I had developed an uncanny ability to avoid the “stories.” On this last Sunday, he seemed determined to repeat every story he had ever told, and I was pretty much a captive audience. He was speaking really well, which made it easier on both of us. He always told his stories as if it was the first-ever telling, and that day was no different. The only thing different was me. I listened with relative patience, knowing that I would not hear them, again. He told them with unfailing accuracy. The stories were interspersed with questions, which I did my best to answer. During that one day, I reiterated why he was in this health predicament, who I would notify, what was happening with Lizzie, plans for his garden, his quilt, the donation of his body, and on and on. When the questions and the stories were exhausted, he began to tell me, in chronological order, the story of his life. Sometimes, he would quiet and I thought he might be sleeping, but each time it turned out that he had been thinking hard and remembering. He would rally, but express confusion about the chronology of some life-event. Then, I would take up the narrative and tell the event and he would correct my mistakes. His mind was alert all day, and it was churning. He seemed determined to tell it all and to tell it all correctly. I wondered if “his life was passing before his eyes.” By the time he finally settled down, eight hours had passed in steady conversation, and we were both exhausted. It would turn out to be our last conversation, and I was so glad that he got to tell those damned stories one more time.
On the Monday before Hal died, I pretty much kept a vigil at his bedside. Nurses came and went, checking Hal’s vitals and rearranging him in the bed. Jeff came and went with food for me. Lizzie checked in via text. Friends called. Hospice came. Hospice left. Hospice came, again. Sometime in the afternoon, he settled down and slept deeply, and sometime in the early evening, the hospice nurse told me that she doubted he would wake.
I was pretty much at a loss, that night. I sat with him and held his hand. I read. When I left his room for even a few moments, I felt compelled to return. I talked to him a bit. I watched him. Around midnight, the nurse showed me that Hal had some of the physical signs of impending death. It occurred to me that I should be doing something. I figured the appropriate thing to do was pray. I couldn’t find my prayer book, so I looked up the Book of Common Prayer on my Kindle and turned to Ministration to the Sick and Ministration at the Time of Death (sort of the last rites of the Episcopal Church). I read from the prayer book for nearly an hour, endlessly rerunning those two Pastoral Offices. It felt awkward and a little embarrassing, and I felt a bit impertinent, reading the priest’s lines. Eventually, I just recited The Lord’s Prayer over and over and over until I ran out of energy and voice. I laid my head on the nightstand and dozed.
At about 1:30 AM, I sat up abruptly when Hal’s breathing changed. Moments later, as quietly and unobtrusively as he had lived, Hal died.
Over the years Hal and I laughed about the reluctance of people to say that someone “died.” We laughed about all the words and phrases people come up with to communicate death and still avoid the words” dead” or “died.” We used to take turns coming up with alternatives. We’d hoot with laughter! “He departed. He left us. He bid farewell. He passed. He went to eternal rest. He finished a long and useful life. He made his exit. He yielded his spirit. He went home. He bid adieu. He left this world. He went to Heaven. He went to a better place. He met his maker. We lost him (Hal’s favorite; he thought it was so dumb). When he heard that if a pet died it was called “crossing the Rainbow Bridge,” he added it to our repertoire. Somehow, we settled on “croaked,” and when we were alone, this is the word we used to describe death. Just now, as I was writing, “Moments later, as quietly and unobtrusively as he had lived, Hal died,” I thought it sounded more literary to say, “Hal slipped away.” It seemed like betrayal though, and since I couldn’t say that he croaked, I settled on the simple truth: Hal died.
Hal’s memorial service wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but the main elements were there. He had wanted our friend, The Reverend Mary Jo, to celebrate communion and preach, but the resident priest was a bit territorial, so we settled for Mary Jo preaching the sermon. She had known Hal for a few years, so the sermon was personal and heartwarming, but also religious. That would have been important to Hal. He had listed about three hours’ worth of music for the service, which naturally was not do-able, but we were able to feature a tape of his wife singing, and that was most important to him. He wanted the choir, and they were willing to sing some of the hymns that he had chosen. The organ and the choir were first rate, always so important to Hal. His son had mailed a eulogy, which the priest read. It was beautifully written and memorialized the old Hal, before age had limited him very much. (The tribute certainly didn’t set well with me, because it was obvious to me that he didn’t know his dad, anymore. It was heartwarming to those who didn’t know any better, but patently dishonest. I was angry that he didn’t come to the funeral, even though I didn’t want him there.) The church was beautiful – filled with flowers and friends. Even the new dean of the college of education at SVSU was there with other university representatives, which surprised and delighted me, as it would have delighted Hal.
Hal wanted to host a small luncheon, in absentia, after his memorial service. His world had become very small in those last couple of years, but he seemed most comfortable that way. He had dictated a guest list for his funeral luncheon that included the people who had befriended him and supported him in the recent past: Mary Jo and husband Jim, Jerry (with wife, Julie), Gail and John, granddaughter Lizzie, and my kids, Allison and Geoffrey, Jeff and me. We sat in a private dining room at a local seafood restaurant, where Mary Jo prayed over our meal. We shared good food, great wine, and conversation about Hal. We toasted him. He would have loved it.
Part of the recreation at lunch that day was the usual (considerable) ribbing about how pushy I was with Hal. I organized his life and told him what to do and scolded him when he didn’t do it. I ran a tight ship, partly because of the need to organize a busy household that catered to an elderly man, partly because I am a control freak, and partly because I had done my research about the elderly, who need routine, accountability, to exercise their cognition, and above all, safety. Hal was meek – a real Caspar Milquetoast – and he was unlikely to challenge me very much in disagreements. While I believe I possess the characteristics of bravery and integrity, it seems most people consider me brash and audacious; thus, the teasing. After an hour or so of laughter and tears, I excused myself to use the facilities. I slipped and fell, and it turned out, broke my knee. Jeff and Jerry tried to lift me, but the pain made me nauseous and faint. There was a bit of chaos as the restaurant manager hovered, and hands were wrung about how to proceed, and sometime during the ensuing drama, Jerry said, “Well, Hal finally got the nerve to kick you in the ass.” I just had to laugh and was certainly willing to consider that possibility!
Once home from the hospital, I ensconced myself in an armchair in Hal’s room. It was as appropriate a setup for an invalid as it was for an elderly man: no stairs, kitchen and bathroom nearby. The room was a mess, because Lizzie and I were in the midst of sorting and boxing Hal’s things. It was an odd time, because of the crutches and inactivity, and because of the absence of the minutiae surrounding his care, that usually filled my brain. It seemed that he had just vanished. It was good for me to be in that space alone for much of the day and begin to absorb the prodigious changes that would encompass my life in the wake of Hal’s death. I had some time to absorb the fact that an era had ended.
It’s been nearly a year since Hal died and people sometimes ask me about my grief. I have realized that I did most of my grieving during the years when Hal became dependent and helpless, when our friendship gradually buckled under the weight of the responsibility of being his caregiver, and his declining ability to hear and speak and think. I had mourned our equality, as I became more and more the parent. Sadness was only one aspect of this grief, so it was hard to recognize. This kind of grieving was slow and insidious and could only be recognized in retrospect. Part of me was reticent to recall those difficult years and weeks before Hal died, so I could write about it. The surprise has been that recalling those events has somehow helped me to think more expansively about Hal, and to remember how he was before age started taking its toll. The anxiety and mental fatigue that result from caring for the elderly have begun to fade away, and I can again remember my friend.
Hal was a scholar, a father, a teacher and a musician. He grew up in a tiny tourist town, the hot-housed youngest son of an over-protective older mother. He played trumpet in his own band (for which he chose the moniker, Hal). He graduated from a prestigious music college and went on to teach there. He earned a PhD. in educational administration from Yale. He married a woman who would become a world-renowned soprano. He sang with the real Von Trapp Family and lived in the real-life home of Maria von Trapp. He directed choirs, taught graduate students and created respected musical arrangements. He played recorder in an early music group at the university until he was 93 years old. He traveled the world. He trekked Tibet. He was the founding dean of the school of education at Saginaw Valley College, now Saginaw Valley State University.
Hal felt blessed to have lived a long and interesting life, and he was quietly proud of his accomplishments. He was friendly and caring. He was understated and sweet, and very naive. He was self-centered, but never selfish. He was extremely practical and endlessly curious. He was physically strong and tough as nails. He was neat as a pin, but he just didn’t see dirt or consider germs. Hal was the quintessential absent-minded professor. He was an adventurer. He was a true pacifist. He was a bit of a snob. He was politically very liberal and personally very loyal. He was devout. He was a voracious reader. He wrote poetry and prayers. He was stingy with himself and generous to others. He was a talker. He was a pleaser. He was a giver.
One thing Hal liked to do is imagine the contrast of the life he actually led with the life he might have led, had certain events happened differently or if he had made different choices. He would pick one of his life events and change it in his mind, then spin it out to a possible outcome. How would his life have been different if he hadn’t sold that puppy (which gave him the application money to sing with the Trapps)? What if he had chosen music over education (and therefore never come to Michigan)? What if he hadn’t studied at Oberlin (and never met Char)? What if he had not followed his dream to build a cabin in the wilderness, after retirement (and created a wonderful “second” life with its endearing friends and opportunities)? He used to write these prognostications in detail and explain them to me. I told him that I couldn’t imagine how my life would have been different if Dr. Peterson hadn’t decided to teach that new graduate class, my very first graduate class. That pleased him.
In his last years, when Hal was very dependent, he would sometimes get overwhelmed, and he would say to me, “My God! Think of it! I don’t know what I would have done without you!” And I would respond, “My God! Think of it! I don’t know what I would have done without you!” And he would relax, because he knew it was true.
Harold William Peterson
September 18, 1922 – March 14, 2017