The Passing of Robert Clair Neel
August 2, 2006 - October 4, 2006
By Stuart D. Neel (written November 4, 2006)
Our father, Robert Clair Neel, passed away in Salt Lake City, Utah on October 4, 2006. The events of the last few weeks and days of his life were truly remarkable and for those who experienced them a confirmation that our Heavenly Father lives and is deeply involved in the details of our lives. I will attempt to describe those experiences from my own perspective and impressions.
On August 2, 2006 Dad was outside talking to his next-door neighbor Steve when a severe storm suddenly rolled in, leading them to part company and go inside. As Dad entered the house, he was talking on the phone with his friend Paul Brown and he remarked that the electricity was out. He was making his way to the basement in the dark when we believe he lost consciousness, perhaps because of some medication he was taking and that had previously given him dizzy spells. He fell down at least one flight of stairs and did not appear to make any effort to cushion his fall with his hands as he suffered not only a fracture of the C2 vertebrae in his neck, but also crushed bones in his face. We understand that many who suffer from this type of neck injury are paralyzed. Dad miraculously was able to get up and make his way out of the basement and to the side door of the house. Steve, the neighbor Dad had been talking to, at that moment felt he should check on Dad because of the blackout in the neighborhood. He found Dad at the side of the house, blood streaming from his injuries, and called 911.
Dad spent weeks in the intensive care unit at the University of Utah hospital. The surgeons successfully operated on his neck, inserting a pin to stabilize the fracture. The operation was a triumph because the doctors succeeded in placing the pin by going through the front of his neck, rather than through the back which would have been a more intrusive procedure. The doctors had worried that Dad's relatively short neck and barrel chest would impede the insertion of the pink through the front of his neck. The surgeons also skillfully repaired Dad's fractured facial bones, inserting metal plates to shore up his broken cheekbones and reconstructing his eye sockets. Dad made steady progress and by mid-September was able to leave the hospital for a rehabilitation center. There he began the slow process of regaining his strength and relearning how to swallow solid foods. He worked at his rehabilitation. But often he felt constrained to explain his reluctance to follow his routine fully by reminding people (even his ever-present children), "you have to understand, I fell down the stairs and broke my neck."
During this stressful period of surgeries and recovery, his three wonderful daughters, Valeri, Peggy, and Elise, shouldered the burden. Third son Trent was able to spend several weeks at the end of August which greatly helped. I'll be forever grateful for the sacrifices that our sisters made during this time in making sure that Dad received the best care. He appeared to be on the road to recovery when I decided to extend by an extra week a previously-scheduled week-long business trip to Utah in late September. I fully expected that Dad would be home by that time and I would be helping him to settle back into his normal routine. About this same time, Bob and Trent who also live out of state, decided to come to Utah to spend time with Dad. We made no great efforts to coordinate our visits, but in retrospect we believe we followed spiritual promptings to go see Dad.
About a week before my scheduled arrival on September 25, Dad had a relapse and had to go back to the University hospital. Although he had been making good progress--walking, beginning to eat solid foods, exercising--his temperature suddenly shot up 105 degrees. The diagnosis was an infected gall bladder. The night before a scheduled operation to take out the infected organ, Dad suffered an unusually severe blockage of his salivary glands that caused his checks to swell greatly. The doctors decided they could not operate because of the difficulty in incubating him with such swelling and instead inserted a shunt into his gall bladder to drain the infection. They placed him on a powerful, general antibiotic while they continued to conduct tests to determine the exact nature of the infection.
During the following week, Dad's condition appeared to stabilize as his temperature dropped although still remaining high. The doctors, however, were increasingly concerned that Dad's heart was not performing as it should and warned us that he probably would not survive any kind of infarction. During this time Dad slipped in and out of lucidity, in part because he had difficulty handling powerful painkillers the doctors sometimes prescribed. He often would try to tear out the IVs and other tubes, insisting that he wanted to go home; sometimes he would have to be restrained, a difficult thing for him and his children to endure. Because he was back on a feeding tube and not able to take liquids, he constantly asked for something to drink, usually Sprite. Since Dad was never one to drink soft drinks, we wondered at his obsession with Sprite, and were pained that we could only attempt to satisfy his thirst with an occasional ice chip. The difficulty he had in swallowing properly meant that liquids might enter his lungs and cause pneumonia. Dad often displayed his strong personality, and sense of humor, during this time despite his ordeals. Once when Bob had to again deny him Sprite and only offer ice chips, he glared at Bob and remarked, "Now who's the boss."
On Monday October 2, Bob and I arrived at the hospital and encountered a gaggle of doctors surrounding Dad's bed. The previous few days, we had indications that the doctors were considering releasing him back to the rehab center, and we had been trying to expedite that release by working with him on swallowing exercises so he could begin to have solid foods again. Thus, we were shocked when the chief resident in the group told us that Dad's infection appeared to have spread to his bloodstream and that they could manage, but not eliminate the infection. To eradicate the infection, they would need to take out the pin in his neck which was attracting bacteria, and this they could not do. New cardiograms also showed that parts of Dad's heart were not working. They also believed he may have suffered some previously-undetected brain damage that would likely keep him from ever returning fully to his normal activities.
Confronted with this bleak prognosis, we called our other siblings to come to the hospital to decide what course to take. We gathered, together with brothers-in-law Scott Stewart and Marc Horne, in a conference room where we knelt in family prayer, asking the Lord to help us know His will. Afterwards, we all were united in the feeling that Dad's mortal probation should not be prolonged, and that we should place him in a hospice. This decision was by no means easy to arrive at inasmuch as only a few hours before we still believed he would recover. But, as Marc so aptly expressed: "it was time to let Dad be with Mom."
The decision made, we took great pleasure in immediately going to Dad's room where we began to furnish him with all the Sprite he desired. We'll never forget the wide grins and relieved expressions, "oh that is good," as he sipped the Sprite.
The hospice attendants arrived not long after we called, and Dad was back at the same facility that afternoon where he had been previously been rehabilitating . We did not have any idea at that point how much time Dad would have. One doctor had suggested that Dad might last for several weeks. Trent and I were scheduled to fly home that Friday and could not extend our stay much longer. We decided to give Dad another priesthood blessing and Trent, Scott, Marc and I joined Bob in the circle. Bob released him, telling him that he had accomplished his mission in mortality.
We decided Dad needed his first taste of real food in weeks and several of us drove to the Iceberg burger joint, where we purchased a juicy hamburger, French fries, and a vanilla shake. That night, Dad feasted on about two fries and a few long draws on the shake's straw.
By the next day, the word had spread the Dad was in the hospice, and a steady stream of friends and family arrived to see him. To one struggling granddaughter, Dad commanded in a voice of strong, but loving patriarchal authority, "you change your life."
We had discussed, when and if we should tell Dad that he was dying. On Monday, he still thought he was at the rehab center to recover. Early Tuesday morning, Elise had the opportunity to tell him, that he was not going to get better, although we don't know if he fully grasped this yet. Later, as many of us were gathered around him, Bob again explained that his condition was serious and he would not get better. Scott asked him if he had any questions. He looked seriously at us for a moment, then asked, "what are you all going to do when I get up and go fishing?" Exactly the question we might expect our Dad to ask. Later, Dad did express one worry--he was concerned that Mom would not be able to recognize him because of the damage he had suffered from his fall. We were able to reassure him that the surgeons had done a wonderful job, that he looked the same as before, and that Mom would be able to recognize him.
Later we shared a special, spiritual experience with him. Amid the constant comings and goings of visitors that day, his six children suddenly found themselves alone late that afternoon around his bedside. It was not a planned event; as with other events associated with his passing, it seemed to be orchestrated by unseen hands. Without any forethought on our part, we found ourselves each taking turns expressing to him, one-by-one, our love and appreciation. The veil seemed thin and we felt we were standing in a very sacred place.
The previous night, Dad had had a rough time. We decided that from then on, one of us would stay with him through the night. Since I was the only one who did not need to work at all the next day, I volunteered to spend Tuesday night with him. We dragged a couch into the room that I eventually draped myself over, catching a few snatches of sleep, but stirring whenever he would become restless. Dad's sleep apnea, often caused him to quit breathing for a few long seconds, causing me several times to quickly start from my semi-sleep to make sure he was still with us. The hospice attendants came into his room every two hours to place morphine drops under his tongue. At the midnight visit, Dad protested loudly that he didn't want anything; I had to quickly jump up and reassure him that this medicine would make him feel better. At two o'clock, he again tried to shoo the attendant away, and I again had to calm him. It was at this point that he spoke his last full sentence: "I've never been through anything like this." I told him that he was doing great, and that everything would be all right.
By early morning, he was not responsive. Several visitors that morning elicited only a slight movement on his part, acknowledging that he knew they were there. Several of his grandchildren were able to call him and express their love with a phone pressed to his ear. Earlier, Scott had warned us that Dad's passing might not be peaceful and that he might suffer violent seizures because of the blood infection. In the early afternoon, Glen suggested that we have a family prayer around his bedside. I prayed that Dad would be able to pass peacefully, expeditiously, and without suffering. By the nature of his breathing and lack of responsiveness, an attendant told us around 2 pm that he probably only had a few more hours to live. We had discussed bringing in music for him to listen to, but had forgotten to bring any of his favorite CDs (e.g., Jim Nabors). Around 4 pm, Trent tried to find music on his laptop to play without success and Elise struggled to get her device to work. Bob grabbed his laptop and begin searching through his files. I asked if he had any Tabernacle Choir music. A few minutes later, we heard the strains of the Tabernacle Choir playing the music from the October 2003 General Conference-the only Tabernacle Choir music Bob had on his laptop. Dad's eyes briefly opened when the music began playing.
As the music played, I asked Bob where "the song" was--"Come Let Us Anew" -- the very song that was playing when Mom passed away three years earlier. It was about the sixth in line. A few minutes later an employee from the mortuary arrived to talk about funeral arrangements. Everyone left the room to speak with him except for Glen, Crystal and me. I stayed behind because I wanted to be there when "Come Let Us Anew" played. Glen decided to swab dad's mouth with water and he and Crystal began looking for a sponge. I was watching dad's breathing--shallow and rapid--when I noticed it beginning to slow. I told Crystal and Glen to quickly call my brothers and sisters. As they began entering the room, Dad's breathing stopped, and I leaned over and could hear a slight gurgling in his throat. Trent placed his hand on Dad's shoulder and could still feel some slight twitches. At that moment, as we were all gathered around the bed, the song currently playing ended and we heard the beginning strains of "Come Let us Anew". We put our arms around each other and sobbed--I know that I was crying mostly out of joy and gratitude that his passing was so beautiful and peaceful and that our prayers had been answered. Another thought foremost in my mind was that Dad at that moment was with Mom and greeting not only his departed family members, but probably also the many thousands for whom he had done name extraction work.
As I contemplate our father's passing, I again am impressed by the feeling that Dad's passing was part of the Lord's great and marvelous plan for him. The Lord spared him for two months after he fell down the stairs, injuries that probably should have been fatal, giving us time to gather together to be with him at the end. The experience confirmed for me once again that God lives, families are eternal, and there is a great plan of happiness that our Father in Heaven has created for us. Dad's time on earth ended because he was needed on the other side. We like to jest that Dad's fall undoubtedly was the result of Mom tripping him. Dad was strong and healthy up until that fall. He died one day short of three years from the day Mom died.
The violent storm that rushed through East Millcreek on the day Dad fell caused considerable damage, uprooting trees and felling many branches. In front of Dad's house stands a great old oak tree that also lost many branches, some of them twisted violently by the wind. As we stood under the tree after Dad's passing and marveled at the fierce gale that had wreaked such havoc, the thought quietly came to mind -- yes, a mighty storm, driven by a divine purpose, felled the great old oak, Bob Neel.