Wednesday, Sept. 14
It’s Wednesday, Sept. 14, and the recliner is still empty; a crowd is gathered around Dr. Dick Boyd in his bed. He has been in Hospice care for 12 days.
Two friends from Dick’s days in the Navy, Ginny and Cal Gardner, have driven up from Warrenton to visit. Cal was a chaplain in the Navy during the two years that Dick served.
Dick’s brother Ty and sister-in-law Pat have come up from Charlotte to say goodbye.
“Go with the peace and the love of God,” Ginny says, giving Dick a hug and a kiss. She tells him that his friendship helped them get through difficult times.
Cal grasps the hand of his dying friend and says goodbye.
Dick holds on tightly to Cal’s hand and looks into his eyes. “How do you tell when you are going to die?” he asks.
Cal replies that Dick will be able to feel the presence of the Lord. That’s how he’ll know. “When the time comes, it will be like a curtain crosses your mind. It will be the grasp of God’s hand in yours,” he tells his friend. “When it does come, you’ll say, ‘Father, I’m coming home.’ ”
Questions about the moment of death have worried Dick for days. Cal looks into his friend’s eyes, reaches over and traces the sign of the cross on his forehead. His other hand is still clasped in Dick’s hand, which has taken on a corpse-like appearance.
“The love that God has for us is expressed in death,” Cal says. “It will come very normally and naturally. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. The faith you have now is helping you prepare yourself for this great event.”
Cal bends over, kisses Dick’s cheek and embraces the dying man.
“I love you,” Cal says, his eyes welling up. Tears roll down Ginny’s cheeks as she stands in the doorway.
Ty walks up to the bed and kisses his brother on the cheek.
“I love you, big brother,” Ty says.
’A new birth’
The room where Dick has spent so much time in his final days had once been a birthing room. Dick’s mother was just 4 when her family moved to Statesville; her younger siblings were all born in that room.
“How appropriate to die there,” Liz says. “Death is a birth into new life. People wait for a baby to be born, and people wait for death. This is a new birth. He’s leaving this life for eternal life.”
Family members and friends leave Dick’s bedside and filter into the den and kitchen.
“You don’t have to have a long face to be sad,” Ty muses. “He knows his family is going to miss him greatly, but he has prepared them to face this. It has made it easier for me as a brother to see how the family and Hospice is handling this.” In the next room, Liz is trying not to cry.
Dick Boyd sleeps.The Rev. Stephen Scott, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church, stops by to say another prayer with the family. “Dick is someone that I selfishly hate to lose, both in the church and as a friend,” Scott says. “He is approaching this experience with such faith. The way he’s faced this has made me less afraid of death. He has approached this with a directness and wisdom that I have never experienced before.
“It’s partly because he’s a physician, partly because he’s intelligent, but it’s also because his faith in God.”
The visitors leave. The house is quiet as Dick’s family gathers around him again. Dick says he wants to sit up, so Richard grabs his shoulders and Martin takes his legs. On the count of three, the two men swing their father around so he can sit on the edge of the bed. Liz sits behind her father, supporting and rubbing his back with a small back massager.
Betty pours him a glass of V8. The children lean their father back so he can swallow.
“Let’s go for another sip, dad,” Martin says. “You did such a good job on the first one.”
Dick wants to hold the glass, so Betty supports his hand. He looks into his wife’s eyes. “She’s a regular nurse,” Dick says. “I’ve got a good patient,” she replies.
Dick tells his son to keep his cell phone on overnight.
Everywhere at once
Much of Dick’s medical practice happened before pagers and cellular phones. When he was on call, he couldn’t attend his children’s sporting events and extracurricular activities. He would try to attend the band concerts, though, sitting in the back of the auditorium at Statesville High School with the door open so he could hear the phone in the office.
“I don’t remember wanting for his time,” Liz said. “It seemed like he was there for me.
“That is a trait that he carried into his medical practice. Women have told me that Dr. Boyd treated them like they were the only patient he ever had. As a child, I felt the same way.”
Dick’s children and wife remember the late-night phone calls and the sounds of their father hurrying out the door to deliver a baby at Davis Hospital.
“He’d jump out of bed and go walking down the street, whistling the whole time he walked,” Liz said.
Betty remembers one winter when Dick got a call around 2 a.m. to come to the hospital. “He had on a ski mask and jacket,” Betty said. “The police stopped him and asked what he was doing. He told them he had to deliver a baby.
“A lot of those babies, he’d deliver at night. I’d hear every phone call. He enjoyed every one of them.” Dick seldom talked about his patients, but they would talk about him. His patients sometimes showed their gratitude by bring-ing him baked goods and, in one instance, chicken livers.
“People would see me on the street and stop me to say ’Dr. Boyd delivered my baby,’ ” Betty said. “People were always singing his praises.” Before his cancer robbed him of breath, Dick was a consummate whistler.
“He could whistle up a storm,” Martin said.
Liz’s daughter, Ellie, inherited her grandfather’s talent for whistling and has performed duets with her grandfather.
Betty always made it a point to have her family together for meals, although sometimes it was hard to convince her children to wait until their father got home from work.
Each Sunday, the family would eat at the hospital. Richard said the food was so good that he often went back for seconds and thirds.
Dick had few rules for his own children, but they wanted to always make him proud, Liz said. One of the biggest rules was following through when they made a commitment.
“Halfway wasn’t an option,” Liz added.
The value of hard work
Liz said Dick adopted much of his personality from his mother, Adabelle.
“She was one of the greatest influences on his life. She was a fourth-grade teacher. … I don’t think you can say she was ever a whistler, but the rest you can say came from her. It’s a wonderful legacy.”
When Dick’s mother moved across the street, the family moved into the house.
Betty described her mother-in-law as an “absolutely amazing” person. “She was constantly teaching the children and me,” she said. “I still use some of her recipes.”
Dick was a master at making work seem like play. Each year, the children would cut firewood for the house with a crosscut saw. Dick made it a contest to see who could cut firewood the fastest.
“Neighbors would come over to try and see if they could cut wood the fastest,” Martin remembers. “We didn’t see it as work. … He was a master at playing Tom Sawyer.”
Martin says there were always chores to do around the house, including mowing the lawn, shucking corn and picking up “every nut in the yard.”
“I learned to appreciate hard work,” Martin said. “There was always a lot of work to do. He would take on stuff that he didn’t have to do.” Dick also made it a point to talk to his children about the risks and benefits of life.
“He said there are three things in life that are very good, but if they are abused or misused, they can be deadly: automobiles, sex, and drugs and alcohol,” Liz said. “You don’t need to tell a teenager much more than that.”
‘We all have a legacy’
Richard remembers the moment that he was the proudest of and most amazed by his father. It was the day after Liz’s wedding, and Dick had to deliver the eulogy for his colleague, Dr. J. Sam Holbrook, the administrator at Davis Hospital who had hired him. Dick performed the eulogy without notes and without any preparation.
Richard steadies the whellchair of his father while Betty makes the bed.“He said, ‘Yesterday was the happiest day of my life, and today is the saddest,’ ” Richard said, tearing up.
Dick’s church family at First Presbyterian was important to him. He sang in the choir and was a deacon, elder, youth leader and teacher. He was the last one out of church each Sunday.
“Time meant absolutely nothing to him,” Richard said. “The pastor would be gone, and we would still be visiting. I don’t think that anyone listened better than him.”
After becoming a parent, Martin found his father’s advice invaluable. Dick was someone people could talk to without being interrupted or judged.
“I’d call and be frustrated, and he’d never pass judgment,” Martin said. “He’d listen and make a comment or two. You couldn’t ask for a better sounding board.”
Dick used to play the piano for his children in the parlor. Martin remembers him always singing silly songs.
With the help of his family, Martin sings, “A Billy goat was feeling fine/He ate six red shirts from the line” He continues the tradition with his three children.
“We all have a legacy,” Ty said. “Some are empty and some are bright. Not only were his own children the recipients of his legacy but generations of children that have been born with him as an OB/GYN.”
In 1998, when the medications he took for the vasculitis began slowing him down, Dick retired from his practice. He kept up on the latest advances in medicine, reading the Mayo Clinic and Carolinas Medical Center publications.
“It was hard for him to give up,” Martin said. With medicine, “either you are in or you are out. You don’t do it part time.”
Thursday, Sept. 15
The house is once again quiet and still. Betty and Martin are waiting for Sina, the Hospice nurse, in the den, their voices barely above a whisper.
Dick is drifting in and out of consciousness and is barely coherent. He has been vomiting for most of the day.
There is a knock at the door. Sina enters, carrying bags of bed pads.
“I am so glad to see you,” Betty says. “I was afraid I wouldn’t see you until tomorrow.”
Just the day before, Dick had been able to sit up in the bed and talk. Today, he lacks the strength.
“He wanted to get in his wheelchair,” Betty says. “We took him out here. He wanted orange juice for breakfast. Boy, he woofed up some cookies.”
Everything makes him vomit, even water.
His urine output has dropped from 200 cubic centimeters a day to less than 25.
Betty asks Sina about putting in a catheter because Dick is no longer able to help them get him to the bathroom.
“I don’t know how close to comatose he is,” Betty says.
Dick is also feverish.
“That’s part of the dying process,” Sina says. “It’s called tumor fever.”
Dick’s breathing has increased over the previous day, but it is shallower and he is no longer gasping for breath.
He has still been worrying about his death, asking family and friends how he will know and how they will know when he’s dead.
“This is what everyone used to do, was to die at home,” Sina says. “Then we decided to keep people alive forever by doing all these things to them.”
The three walk into the bedroom to check on Dick.
Green bile has spilled from his mouth onto his shirt, the pillow and the sheets. Betty snaps on a pair of gloves and climbs on the bed to scrub up the mess, while Martin pulls the pillow out from under his father’s head and replaces it with a clean one.
As the three clean up, Dick grunts and vomits again.
“I know, honey,” Sina says. “It’s so bad.”
She rubs some gel on his arm to help with the nausea. “It’s hard on you to throw up, isn’t it?”
Betty runs up the stairs to find a flat sheet while Sina washes the vomit out of a plastic basin. Martin comforts his father.
When the women return, Betty pulls new sheets over one corner of the bed and lays out the flat sheet. Martin rolls his dad on his side to get him over the hump in the sheets so they can finish making the bed.
“Dad, we are trying to change your sheets,” Martin says.
Dick doesn’t respond. He begins to vomit again.
“Here you are, feeling nauseated, and we are rolling you around,” Martin says apologetically.
From the other side of the bed, Betty says, “I’m sorry, Dad.”
Sina and Betty pull a clean T-shirt over Dick’s head. Then Sina puts in a catheter so the family won’t have to get Dick out of the bed.
It’s one thing he hadn’t wanted.
Friday, Sept. 16
Every two hours, Betty and her children give Dick his medicine. The goal now is to make him as comfortable as possible. Dick is unresponsive.
“After you see them go through the process, you are ready for them to go,” Sina says. “Dying is a part of living. When we want to keep them here, we are being selfish. If you really love them, you want them to go to a better place. “To see him like this — it’s something he never wanted to be.”
Sina and BettyTy and Pat sit with Betty and Martin in the den. There is little left to do but wait. As they talk, they can hear the sound of Dick’s shallow breathing over a baby monitor sitting on the mantel. Every few minutes, Martin looks in on his father.
“He looks more comfortable now than he has in the last three days,” Martin says. “He’s finally found the sweet spot.”
Saturday, Sept. 17
Dick’s breathing is rapid and shallow.
“He looks at you, and you know he can think, but he can’t do anything with his body,” Richard says.
Fluid is building up in Dick’s lungs. His breathing makes a gurgling sound, like someone slurping the last drops of a milk shake.
“It’s horrible, and you want to help him,” Liz says. But comfort is all his family can provide.
Dick’s nurse has assured the family that he isn’t aware of the labored breathing.
That night, a bright, full moon shines down on the Boyds’ home and on their night-blooming flower.
The buds on the cereus twist open into 16 large white flowers. This kind of cactus blooms just one night a year, and its flowers don’t survive the light of day.
The Boyd family sits out on the front porch and watches it.
“With the full moon and those perfect flowers…” Liz trails off. “I took that to be a good sign from God.”
The family goes back inside to get some rest. Betty still sleeps in the bed with her husband, and on this night Liz sleeps nearby on the floor.
Sunday, Sept. 18
The alarm goes off at 5 a.m. Liz gives her dad medicine and falls back asleep.
About 45 minutes later, Betty notices that Dick is quiet. She yells for Liz.
Liz tells her mother she’s going to wake her brothers, but Betty tells her to wait a moment. A few seconds pass, and Liz runs upstairs to wake Richard and Martin.
cereus bloomThey gather around Dick as the sun starts to rise. The beautiful cereus blooms that the family admired the night before are fading. Like that fading flower, Dick dies shortly before dawn.
“He was always an early riser,” Liz muses.
The morning light
Hours later, Dick’s body is on its way to Chapel Hill, where doctors will perform an autopsy to learn more about the disease that killed him. His ashes will be buried later in the family plot at Oakwood Cemetery.
Back at the house, his bed has been stripped. The curtains are open and the morning sun streams in. The room has lost its death shroud. As sad as they are, the family feels a sense of release that Dick’s suffering is over.
Liz and Martin begin calling family members and friends to let them know. Betty changes clothes to prepare for the many people who will be stopping by that afternoon.
For the next two days, hundreds of people come to pay their respects, hugging, bringing food and meditating on Dick’s con-tribution to their lives.
“Love and respect,” Betty says, “are hard to come by.”