Hospice shutdown closes Dad’s final resting place

Where do you go to remember the dead?

June 9, 2023 8:00 am

Robert Crossman’s brick at the Healing Garden at MercyOne’s Hospice House in Johnston. (Photo by Jody Gifford)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.I was working from home one Friday afternoon when my sister’s face popped up on my phone. She and I mostly text so when she calls, it’s usually about something important.

“Did you hear that hospice is closing?” she said.

She was talking about MercyOne’s Hospice House in Johnston — the same hospice center where my dad passed away 10 years ago in March. The health care system cited post-pandemic economic woes and changing opinions about how folks want to spend their last days as reasons for the closure.

On a cerebral level, I understood. Businesses make tough financial decisions every day. But my heart refused to believe it. Mercy Hospice was more than just bricks and mortar, it was literally and figuratively my dad’s final resting place.

My dad

My dad got sick in the winter of 2012 and until then, I thought he was indestructible. He’d lived a quiet life, worked with his hands and never shied away from a project or said “no” when asked for help. He’d fix your car, shovel your driveway or make you a plate no matter the circumstances.

When my parents divorced, it was my dad who kept us connected — to our extended family, to our siblings and to him. My siblings and I would pack ourselves and our families into his tiny, one-bedroom house at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, eager to dig into the feast he’d prepared for us. We never left hungry and he’d always send us home with Country Crock tubs filled with leftovers.

Our first Christmas without him was in 2012. He was hospitalized just days before but insisted we get together anyway. We took dozens of pictures that day for the electronic photo frame we’d gifted him, which he proudly displayed during his monthlong stay in the hospital.

But my dad never got better. He was in and out of the hospital, and his doctors didn’t know why. Was it his lungs? His heart? No one knew, but every time he got sent home, he swore he was improving, determined to kick whatever was ailing him.

On March 1, 2013, my dad called and left me a voicemail. He’d just been admitted to Mercy again. They were just going to do some tests, he said, to “build him back up again,” and there was no reason to get excited. He asked me to call my brother and sister to explain so they wouldn’t worry.

That was a Friday and by Saturday night, my dad was slipping in and out of consciousness. I stayed overnight at the hospital with him that night. He had moments of lucidity. He’d wake up and look for me in the darkness of his room. He’d shout out names in his sleep of people I didn’t know. He growled about how cold it was before abruptly dozing off again.

By Sunday, he was unresponsive. His doctors said there wasn’t much else they could do for him and suggested that he might be more comfortable in hospice care. My brother, sister and I debated it, of course, struggling to come to terms with the idea that my dad was dying. But we decided and by early Monday morning, my dad was transferred to Mercy Hospice in Johnston.

Those first few hours were a Godsend for my dad. He’d been given a bath and was dressed in his own clothes. His hair was combed and his nails trimmed. His toiletries were laid out and the pictures from his hospital room were arranged on his nightstand. The nurse said he let out a relaxed sigh after settling into bed. He was sleeping and at peace for the first time in days and we were grateful.

Our family met with hospice counselors who talked to us about what the end of life looks like, what signs we might see that my dad was ready to leave us. They were warm and reassuring in ways we’d all needed that day. As my siblings and I talked it over that afternoon, there was a palpable sense of relief among us all.

We didn’t have much time to get comfortable with this new normal. My dad died early the next morning, March 5, 2013. He was 73.

Minutes after he passed, I walked out to the Healing Garden, a small green space at the center of the building, its walkways paved with bricks given in memory of lost loved ones. I sat down on a bench there and cried.

Making a rubbing of her grandfather’s brick in the Healing Garden. (Photo by Jody Gifford)

A month later, I purchased a brick for the Healing Garden in memory of my dad. It was placed under a shady tree in late spring, when the ground softened and the weather turned warm.

My dad chose cremation without interment and we honored his wishes, but it meant no headstone or burial plot where we could sit and visit him. Hospice was literally his final resting place and that brick — and the garden — became a special place of remembrance.

I have visited the garden frequently since my dad died. Sometimes I sit and enjoy the garden’s peacefulness and other times, I talk to my dad. I leave flowers on his birthday and clean up the leaves and snow when the weather turns cold.

With hospice closing, the Healing Garden is, too. I’ve reached out to MercyOne and they assured me that my dad’s brick will be returned to me once hospice closes for good. But it won’t be the same. There was something spiritual about being in the place where my dad finally felt at peace, where he felt safe enough to leave this earth. Sitting on that bench, in that garden, I felt connected to my dad again.

Families impacted by the hospice experience often find it difficult to explain to those who have not experienced it. You can’t put a price on peace of mind but if you could, I’d pay it, especially if it meant keeping spaces like the Healing Garden open to all.

This column was originally published by Jody Gifford’s blog, Benign Inspiration. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Jody Gifford
Jody Gifford

Jody Gifford is a freelance writer and veteran journalist who has worked for The Des Moines Register, The Indianapolis Star and She’s a member of the Iowa Writers Collaborative and writes a column, Benign Inspiration. By day, she’s in communications for a malpractice insurance company, and by night, she’s a busy mom, leader, volunteer and staunch ally who takes every opportunity she can to make the world a kinder place. She lives with her partner, three teenagers and two cats in West Des Moines, Iowa.