Have you ever been with someone when they died? Have you ever watched your loved one expell his last breath and feel their soul rising upwards to God?

I have, and it is an experience that I will never forget.

There are times in all of our lives that, when we look back on them from a safe distance in the future, we wonder how we ever survived. The Fall of 2002 was such a time for me. It started normally enough. Rebecca began kindergarten that September and Annie started preschool at the same preschool Rebecca had attended for two years. Both girls were enjoying their schools and life appeared to be moving along as it always does; too fast at times and slow as molasses at others. Neil had been having some stomach pains which I have to admit that I wasn't overly concerned about. He was in good health for his age and I think we all assumed that he just had a virus. The day that we received the news, I had spent the day at the Renaissance festival with several girlfriends and returned to find that Troy had called from his parent's cabin and wanted me to call immediately. Neil had cancer.

I think I was shocked, but it honestly never crossed my mind that Neil wouldn't survive. Hadn't my 80 plus year old grandmother survived three bouts of cancer and radical surgery and was now healthy enough to drive a golf ball further then I could manage? Neil was only in his 60's and had always enjoyed good health. We found out that he had liver cancer- a very rare form of liver cancer- and they recommended that he go to Mayo in Rochester for treatment. I felt relieved that we had such a reputable source of medical care so close by and convinced myself that he was going to be fine- to get better- and to be back playing dolls with his grandaughters and fishing with his grandsons before we knew it.

I was wrong.

We spent much of that fall driving back and forth to Rochester watching Neil get progressivly weaker and sicker. It was shocking to watch this vibrant healthy man wither away before our eyes. My children, as young as they were, knew that their beloved grandpa was very ill but didn't quite know what to make of it. Rebecca, as sensitive as she is, was torn about visiting him. Seeing him as he was made her cry, but she didn't want him to know how upset it made her. It upset all of us. It was simply tragic to watch a man so loved, so needed by so many disappear from our lives.

When the end was near we were able to arrange for Neil to be brought back to Stillwater so that we could all be with him. We spent four days as a family at the nursing care facility with our own apartment and hospice and a nursing staff that came in to provide pain medication for Neil but who otherwise didn't disturb us. Many of Neil's friends and family came to see him for the last time- to tell him that they loved him and to hold his hand. I am grateful for this time- that I was able to be with him, to tell him that I loved him and that we would always be with him.

On November 11, 2002, Neil Arthur Junker went to heaven. All of the immediate family was with him as he died, holding hands and letting him know that we were with him. It was one of the most profound moments of my life; there was a sense of peace that I didn't expect as well as the grief that gripped all of our hearts. He had left us in physical form, but I knew that somehow somewhere he would be with all of us forever.

The day of his funeral, Troy's uncle told me that he had dreamed of Neil - that Neil had come to him and told him that he was all right and that there was nothing to be afraid of. Troy's uncle is not given to fanciful ideas. I don't know if Neil really did come to him from some other place, or whether he was simply getting a message from his own heart. Either way, the story is deeply comforting to Troy and myself.

I wrote a poem for Neil as he lay dying that fall. I read it at his funeral although I could hardly see the page for the tears clouding my eyes.


The leaves are falling
Drifting down to the
Blackened ground

Bright red-gold sunlight glints
Through the few leaves
Clinging steadfastly
To the trees

I walk along
The scent of smoke from a nearby fire
Drifts past me

Leaves scatter, crackling
A breeze touches my face and
Lifts my hair in the autumn sunlight

I hunch forward
Drawing my wool coat
Protecting myself
From the chill in the air

The knowledge of
The coming winter.

When the ground will be frozen
The rush of water stilled
As the world waits
For a return of life and
A renewal of spirit

I contemplate
The beauty around me
Beauty in the face of certain death
The magnificence of nature
Refusing to give up
Or give in

Stooping down
I pluck a fallen leaf from the hard ground
Tuck it in my pocket
And walk on.

The very next week we discovered that my three year old, Annie, had a serious chronic illness which would forever our lives. But that's a story for another time.

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Comment There are no words that could so eloquently describe such a horrible experience as yours. You brought me to tears.

Thu Jul 29, 2004 2:06 pm MST by Meg

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