My Father’s Last Dance: Amidst Pain and Suffering, the Grace of Love Prevails
“Know where you’re going and go there!” —Warren Saunders’ last words to Cat before his death
By Cat Saunders
My dear father and friend, Warren Saunders, died at dawn on June 1st, 2004. He’d been suffering from Parkinson’s, and his condition had deteriorated significantly in the past year. On May 7, 2004, he fell and broke his neck. He was rushed to Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle, where he spent a few weeks in critical care following surgery to fuse two neck vertebrae.
The surgery was successful. However, the cumulative trauma from the fall, the neck surgery, a tracheotomy, and other difficult medical procedures brought more tubes, more pain, and more debilitation. He never stood or walked again, and he was never able to eat or breathe again on his own.
Starting the night of Warren’s hospitalization, my partner (John Giovine) and I visited him regularly. The first evening he was sedated for pain, so we simply sat with him and held his hands. The second night, while awaiting surgery, Warren’s head was in traction. He couldn’t move without pain, but he was awake and alert. When I walked into the room, he reached out to me and smiled his still dazzling trademark smile.
That second night was the last time my father was able to talk with me in the usual ways. It was extremely difficult for him to articulate clearly because of his neck injury and Parkinson’s. Nonetheless, our conversation that night was remarkable. He was completely open and emotionally vulnerable, and he was accessing multiple levels of reality. Somehow, through a bridge of deep love, I was able to connect with him even when he was “in another place.”
At one point, he suddenly stared straight ahead as if he was seeing something far in the distance. He said loudly and clearly, “Know where you’re going and go there!” I realized later that he not only knew–at a soul level–that he was on his final voyage. He was also bequeathing me a final piece of fatherly advice.
After three weeks of terrible suffering in the hospital, Warren was moved to Bailey-Boushay House in Seattle for hospice care. This happened on Thursday, May 27th, after he was removed from life support at his request. The previous Saturday, my father had communicated this request to me in powerful nonverbal ways during an intense and heart-wrenching two-hour “conversation.”
That conversation consisted of my carefully worded queries about his preferences. I posed these queries as YES/NO questions so he could answer nonverbally in ways I could recognize. Over the course of those two hours, tears streamed down my face. I wondered if my decades of work with death and dying were simply so I could help my own father die.
Once he was transferred to Bailey-Boushay, he received 24-hour compassionate palliative care to make him comfortable. John and I visited him again on Memorial Day evening. That night, I prayed and sang to him softly as he rested in a deeply inward state. The following morning, on June 1st at 5:55 a.m., he took his final breath. I was the last one in my family to see him alive.
I didn’t learn of Warren’s death until his body had already been moved to Bleitz Funeral Home in Seattle. Upon hearing the news, I journeyed shamanically to see if his spirit needed help with his transition (he didn’t). Then I put a favorite Krishna Das chant on the stereo and danced my heart out. Raising my arms to the heavens, I exclaimed, “GOOD JOB, WARREN!” Despite all the suffering, he died well in the end.
That afternoon, John and I went to Bleitz to meet with my family and the funeral director. I asked to spend time alone with my father’s body, since I had not been able to see him that morning at Bailey-Boushay.
It was deeply moving to see my father dead. I wept quietly as I touched his face and kissed his cold forehead. I said thank you and I love you over and over to him. He and I had long since forgiven each other for everything, so I felt no unfinished business between us. It still broke my heart to say goodbye.
Two days after my father died, John and I witnessed his cremation at Bleitz Funeral Home. That experience was powerful and intense beyond words. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. It felt important to honor and care for my father’s body after death, just as people who bury their dead are present when their loved one’s body is committed to the ground.
Intuitively I’d known before coming to Bleitz that I wanted to be the one to start the crematory fires once my father’s body was inside. As I turned the dial to start the burners, a wave of grief passed through me again. In that simple act of love, I felt the finality of my father’s death.
Afterward, John and I sat on the lawn outside Bleitz Funeral Home under clear blue skies. We watched the sky shimmer as the heat waves from the fire rose to the heavens.
This article was originally published by Evergreen Monthly (September 2004) and updated in July 2017.
Author’s note: When my father died, Bleitz Funeral Home was still contracted with People’s Memorial Association to provide low-cost cremation. Unfortunately, after 67 years of partnership with PMA, Bleitz canceled their contract with PMA (effective March 20, 2006). Bleitz is now owned by the largest funeral corporation in the world, Service Corporation International (SCI), a profit-oriented business.
Kudos to the late James C. Bleitz, original owner of Bleitz Funeral Home, who—in 1939 when PMA was founded—was the only funeral director in Seattle willing to work with PMA to provide low-cost cremation.
For information about current PMA-contracted funeral homes in Seattle and other areas, please visit People’s Memorial Association. If you’re interested in witnessed cremation like the experience I described in this article, feel free to ask PMA staff for a recommendation about which of their contracted funeral homes provide the most welcoming setup for this aspect of care.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).