Handbook for Mortals : A Story of Comfort : The Sweater

Donna Peratino's 80-year-old father was dying of pancreatic cancer. Thin after radiation and chemotherapy, he became very cold and began to wear a sweater. This is Donna's story:

I asked my father about the sweater one day, noting that it belonged to his brother, George, who had died of cancer just over a year before. My father had gotten the sweater from his sister-in-law, who had asked if there was anything he had wanted to remind him of George. Although my father did not need a physical object, he accepted the sweater as a gesture of courtesy to my aunt. George had worn the sweater throughout his own illness and dying.

I asked my father how he felt while wearing the sweater. He said that it made him feel that he was "next in line." I nodded and, after a few moments of quiet, asked if there was a different path for him to choose. I then asked him if, given a choice, which color sweater he would like and what characteristics it would need to have to comfort him and keep him warm.

That afternoon, I returned with a deep blue, cable-knit cardigan that lit up my father's eyes and evoked a sigh when the shopping bag was opened. He tried it on and the new, smaller sweater fit perfectly. His delight and appreciation for this seemingly small act of kindness radiated and touched my soul.

After a few moments, we agreed there was one step left. We had agreed that the new sweater would replace the old one. After my father had reached up to the closet shelf and brought down the carefully folded green sweater, I held it with him as he passed it to me. We paused and I asked him to think of all that his brother had been to him and all they had shared. While my father appreciated the sweater and how it had served George, he was going to let it go. My father and I locked eyes for an all-too-quick instant, and then he raised his open palm, kissed his fingers to his lips, and brought the kiss to the sweater.

This shared moment has brought me great comfort in knowing there were many small, important ways that I contributed to my father's long-term battle, in which he outlived his doctor's prognosis by one year. Throughout this time, he wore the blue sweater as a symbol of his commitment to continue as long as he could, and to move on when it was his time.

After my father's death, my mother hurriedly disposed of his clothes as a way of coping with the reminders of all she had lost. Slacks, shirts, ties, and tuxedo were all gathered and donated to charity -- except one piece that found its way to the third drawer of my dresser.

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Handbook for Mortals book cover Copyright © 1999, 2006 by Joanne Lynn. This extract from the Handbook for Mortals by Joanne Lynn, M.D. and Joan Harrold, M.D. is used with permission. To learn more about improving care at the end of life visit the main web site for Americans for Better Care of the Dying.
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