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Baby Boomer - Gifts of Dying
Baby Boomer Learns the Gifts of Dying in Father's Passing
Laura Letson knows from her father Willie's death "the importance of embracing death as an extension of living." (Knight-Ridder Tribune photo)

   This is the final story in Finding Our Way series on how Americans are finding ways to embrace dignity and quality at the end of life.
    The passion to help others started smoldering inside Laura Letson a long time ago. Her father fueled it as a firebrand union man. Her mom stoked it by fighting on behalf of fellow civil servants.
   As the only girl and the baby in the family, she grew up tough as the New York City she was raised in.
    So a few years ago, when her dad's health steadily worsened, that passion quickly became fully engulfed: She would do whatever it took to ease her dying hero into a good and graceful farewell.
    It's a duty millions of aging Americans are about to learn first-hand.
   After pushing for everything from natural childbirth in the 1960s to longer, healthier lives in the decades since, 76 million baby boomers soon will be demanding information, guidance and relief in what will be their ultimate transition -- moving from advanced illness into dying.
    A generation that grew up listening to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin will expect innovative products to help relieve severe pain at the end of life. And in a cultural sea change, Americans as a nation will revisit the way they think about death.
   This is a generation comfortable taking control, and Letson was no exception. In her role as mother and wife, and as an advocate fighting on behalf of nonprofits and state government agencies, she showed others what dedication and drive could do.
    So when her 75-year-old father, William Rosenblatt, developed advanced heart disease in September 1999, Letson hurried from her home in Albany, N.Y., to Florida and stepped in to manage his case.
    She focused on the person facing a life-threatening illness; she became an educated advocate for her loved one and she talked openly about medical planning most would rather sidestep. As her father's illness advanced and subtly evolved into the process of dying, she viewed life's end in a positive manner.
   And, as Letson would come to see it, as a wondrous and priceless gift.
    She called her father Willie. He'd been a printer for nearly 40 years and in 1995 developed advanced heart disease. He did well with a pacemaker, and in 1999 his cardiologist put in a defibrillator implant that he said could make him "a new man."
   But shortly after surgery, Letson grew worried. Her dad's doctor seemed uncomfortable acknowledging how far the disease had progressed, but Letson felt intuitively that Willie's life was fading. On Feb. 7, 2000, his cardiologist confirmed her gut feeling: Her dad had three to six months to live.
   After huddling with her mother, Claire, and two brothers, Letson brought her dad the news. But instead of being panic-stricken, Willie was relieved. "I thought so," he said, then shared his feelings of "suffocating" when he couldn't speak openly about his prognosis.
   For Willie, a dreadful weight had been removed.
    Letson offers a powerful example: Her prompt action helped her father, family members and even the medical team confront individual and cultural fears that shroud the dying process. Her next move was to forge a treatment plan.
    There are signs that Americans are on the verge of a collective breakthrough, beginning with the sort of structured conversations that Letson had with her family. Experts describe this new end-of-life landscape as including: Pain management as a touchstone of medical plans; a new vocabulary addressing patients' cultural traditions, psychological and spiritual needs; new job descriptions for nurses and social workers as care coordinators; a community network to support caregiving to ailing parents, as well as demand reforms in insurance coverage and in local and state laws; and changes in the way hospitals and major medical organizations are accredited and deliver care. Fashioning a plan for her father put Letson in this movement's vanguard. After her conversation with Willie, she had hospice aid brought in. She wrote Willie's doctor, stressing the importance of in-home care. And she explained how the death of her brother, David, from a diabetic coma had taught her the value of emotional support.
    By May 2000, with the blessing of her husband and daughter, Letson moved her parents in with her. Willie now had the best of both worlds: hospice care in his daughter's house and, when necessary, visits to the inpatient-hospice unit in Albany.
   By June, Willie felt at peace with dying but wanted to live the best he could with his remaining time. Tears welled up in his eyes when he spoke to a visitor about David, the son he had lost. He shared regrets about mistakes he had made with Claire; family members encouraged him to ask for forgiveness.
   "Life is so precious," he told a visitor. "I only want my family to see how much I love them."
    Willie stayed at Letson's home until year's end. Nearly a year had now passed since doctors told him he had three to six months to live. At a final gathering on New Year's Eve, the same day Letson's daughter turned 13, Willie's family honored his legacy.
    By the next day, Willie's kidneys were failing rapidly. Letson brought him back to the hospice inn. Just before the ambulance pulled up, Willie looked at his daughter.
   "Will I be coming home?" he asked.
   "Not this time, Dad."
   "That's what I thought," said Willie.
   Letson, like her father, knew in her heart this was the way to live with dying -- sheltered with dignity and calm, not battered by last-minute turmoil in which dying is considered a medical emergency instead of a time of love and reflection.
    On Jan. 3, Willie told Letson he was ready to join David in heaven. He said he had seen his son in a vision.
   "The next time you see David," she replied, "take his hand and follow him home."
    But Willie wasn't quite ready to let go. He was worried about leaving his wife. Claire knew she had to give him permission to die. "Are you still fighting, Willie?" she asked him.
    He nodded. Then she said gently, "I want you to stop fighting, Willie, and go with the flow. Do you understand?"
   Another nod. Several hours later, Willie took in his last breath, then let it out.
    The lessons Letson learned are those that millions of Americans will one day face. She speaks of "the importance of embracing death as an extension of living." She talks about "looking beyond the surface to the gifts that the dying process has to offer."
   And, as Letson now knows: "You will not get these gifts anywhere else in life.
    Willie had left a letter and asked that it be read aloud upon his death. In it, he spoke of his unconditional love for his family. He apologized for any disagreements they may have had.
    Finally, like the daughter who had helped him die with grace, Willie described lessons he, too, had learned in life:
   "Nothing is more important in a person's time on earth than love, happiness and health," Willie wrote. "Thank you for sharing my life and giving me my greatest moments. I will love you forever."