In 2006 my father-in-law, William F. Mongan, who was affectionately called Bill, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Despite being 82 years old, the family was devastated. It came on the coat-tails of Bill losing his beloved wife, Fran, who he adored. During her battle with ovarian cancer, Bill willingly took on the role of ministering angel to care for her. He loved her so. After nine short months Fran had lost her battle. With a tear in their eyes, they said their good-byes. Theirs was a love story. The good-bye would not be for long.
We were later to learn that the entire time Bill was caring for Fran, he too had cancer. This time I would step in Bill’s shoes and become his ministering angel. The shoes were way too big to fill! Not being medical, I knew right away I was out of my league. Thankfully my husband, a physician, was able to give Bill the best care available. My role was to serve Bill with a joyful heart and a positive attitude. I soon recruited our son, Joshua, to help; I needed him!
One day I had an idea to brighten Bill’s last days and let him know how much his life meant to us, and all who knew him. I asked our daughter Amanda to compose a letter that we sent to all of Bill’s relatives and friends. Here is a portion of the letter:
Sometimes a simple word of encouragement or short note describing a fond memory can make a person’s day. So, we are compiling a “Love Book” that we hope to fill with letters from family and friends. These could be letters of appreciation, favorite memories, funny stories, or encouraging words. You can include anything you feel led to tell him. We always carry those we love in our hearts. I know that my grandfather carries all of you with him, and he loves you all dearly. I think it would be so meaningful for him to hear why you carry him in your hearts. These letters would mean so much, and they will certainly bring love and happiness to him during these trying times.
This little act of kindness grew a “garden of joy” in his heart. It gave him something to look forward to. Every day Bill would race me to the mail box to see if any letters arrived. I knew I could beat him, since he was using his walker, but I always let him win. One letter in particular stands out. Our family was gathered around the dinner table and Bill said with a grin from ear to ear, “I got a letter today!” My husband remarked, “Oh yeah, dad, from who?” Bill answered, “Tyler.” Tyler is our oldest son of eight children and Bill’s first grandchild. Pat said, “Where is the letter?” “Under my pillow,” was the reply. Can you just visualize the importance of being remembered through the written word? All the letters meant so much to Bill, but this one was especially important, so he kept it close at hand.
As Bill’s health began to fail he would say in a weak voice, “Ellen, get my book and let’s read it together.” I would always try to drop everything and spend the time caring and giving to my father-in-law. One day I was having my prayer time when Bill called from the other room, “Ellen!” I closed my bible and ran over to him with all the self-control that I could muster up. “What do you need Bill?” I said in my best cheerleader voice. His answer I will treasure forever. “Ellen, I don’t need anything. I just want to be with you.” He gave me a fatherly embrace and I hugged him back. It was on that day that I received my father-in-law’s blessing and he became my dad too. Those words healed a hurt in my heart that I had never voiced. I knew he understood how much I treasured being a part of the Mongan family. Then Bill and I sat down together on the couch and read his “Love Book” together. His heart soared as he soaked in once again, words of love written to him from those who care. As we turned the last page of Bill’s book he said, “Let’s read it again, Ellen.”
When Bill died we placed the “Love Book” in a memory box for Bill, which the grandchildren adorned with colorful artwork. On special occasions we take out the “Love Book” and look at it together. We remember Bill and we rejoice in a life well lived. We treasure the memories of times spent together with our dad, Bill. I am grateful that we were the ones to have the privilege to give Bill the care he needed during his battle with lung cancer. In return we received so much more than we gave. It is the memories you gain along the way that keep your loved ones close at heart, even after you have said your final “good byes.”