Saturday, September 27, 2008
If you are reading my blog for the first time, this post will hardly reflect my often playful and humorous take on life. In July, I lost both of my parents within three plus weeks of each other. It was - and remains - a very painful, stressful time. This may be the final piece about that marker event in my life for some time.
The doctor says there are few families that would have let my father die on his own terms – at home, under hospice care, with no feeding tubes or other measures to prolong his life. Someone in the family, the doctor says, would have cried “Uncle!” and tried to save him, gone the extra mile to prevent the inevitable. None of us wavered.
He looks like a young boy. He looks like a monkey. Now he looks like a skeleton, his cheeks sunken, his ribs protruding, his perpetually swollen legs all but sticks. My dad is in the final stages of dying after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. He cannot talk. He cannot swallow. His is paralyzed on his right side. Still, he hangs on. Maybe he is wrestling with unfinished business or maybe he’s changed his mind; the death he seemed to covet is no longer so appealing. Or maybe at age 91 he is a lot stronger than any of us could have imagined.
My brother, sister, and I know the signs of dying only too well. My mother died in the same bed surrounded by the same hospice staff just three weeks ago. That was our first experience. We are old hats now. While my parents’ illnesses were different, the stages of dying are eerily similar. It is hard work to die. We labor to come into this world and we labor to leave it.
Our family is apparently not unique. A study conducted by Harvard University found that men are 18 per cent more likely to die shortly after their wives’ deaths, and women are 16 per cent more likely to die shortly after their
husbands’ deaths. I have a friend whose mother died, leaving her father alone and depressed. Nothing brought him a modicum of joy, not even moving in with his daughter and son-in-law. The widower mentioned over and over again that he’d never missed being with his wife on her birthday or on their wedding anniversary. And he had not intention of changing things. But his physician had given him a clean bill of health; he was nowhere near dying. Soon after, he suffered a massive stroke. He held on for six days and died on his wedding anniversary.
Most of us have heard stories like this about an older person who “dies of a broken heart” shortly after their longtime spouse’s death. But it all seems like the stuff of soap operas – over-the-top drama until it happens to someone you love. My dad had made it clear that he wanted to die before my mother. And he made no bones about hating to grow old. “Growing old is not for sissies,” he said often. But as I watch him now, struggling for each breath, gurgling in the phlegm pooling in his throat and lungs, I know . . . I just know that he’d give anything for a reprieve.
We knew my mother was dying; we had time to “prepare.” One day, she was on her way to play bridge at the Lighthouse for the Blind. Later that afternoon, after complaining of pain in her legs and having trouble walking, she was in the hospital with an irregular heart beat, high blood pressure, and the worst case of gout the doctors had ever seen. “It’s nothing,” my dad said. He was wrong. The medication for the gout turned her stomach into a whirlpool of upset and pain. Her red blood cell count dipped dangerously low. My mother, once active and involved, spent most of her time in bed. Within ten days, she was back in the hospital. Still, we remained optimistic. The massive dose of steroids given as a last resort to battle the gout would turn things around. We were sure of it. Again, we were mistaken. “Your mother is dying,” the doctors said. While my mother accepted her fate with grace and dignity, my father did not. “I know she’s going to pull out of this,” he said.
Just thirty-six hours before my mother died, we found my dad flat on the floor with his forehead bleeding profusely. He had no memory of falling and no idea what may have caused the fall. He was rushed to a local hospital where, after a battery of tests, the doctors confirmed that he had suffered a cerebral Hemorrhage, or bleeding on the brain. His situation was borderline; if the bleeding didn’t stop, he’d need an operation. “No surgery for me,” my dad said emphatically. And he meant it. Either he recovered or he didn’t. That was that. All that mattered to him was seeing my mother.
The ambulance pulled up slowly into my parents’ driveway. The EMTs opened the back door and carefully lowered my father’s stretcher to the ground. After a heated discussion, the hospital staff had allowed him to come home to spend sixty minutes and no more with my mother who had died just hours before. Family and friends tried their best to hold back the tears but to no avail. There was my father, sitting now at the end of the bed, staring at his partner of sixty-seven years. The late afternoon sun bounced off of her shiny silk pajamas and highlighted her incredibly smooth skin, her delicate hands, her full head of hair not yet all gray. Satisfied, my father signaled that he was ready to return to the hospital.
My father looks like Popeye The Sailor Man now with his one cheek swollen twice its normal size. He lies on his side, his pace maker sticking out from his chest like a pack of cigarettes. He’s no longer responding to noise or to touch. There is no way to reach him. It’s evening now, the night before my birthday. My dad is going to die on my birthday. I just know it. I try to see the poetry in this, the “life coming full circle” thing. It’s a stretch, a big stretch. Up until now, I’ve loved to repeat the story of my birth toward the end of World War II at 4:40 A.M. Eastern War Time. But if he dies tomorrow, my birthday will never be a day of celebration again. It seems so selfish for me to be thinking this way. I can’t help it.
It’s 4:00 A.M. on my birthday, and I cannot sleep. Restless, I grab a jacket, slip it over my mother’s nightgown that I’ve taken to wearing, put on a pair of sandals, and start walking the block from where I’m staying to my dad’s house. Halfway, I see two figures emerge under a street lamp. As I get closer, I realize it’s my brother and sister. They are coming to get me. “We think dad is ready to die but that he’s waiting for you,” they say. I walk quickly now. I’m on a mission. I stand by my dad’s bedside and retell the story of my birth, urging him to let go. I remind him that his dear wife and beloved son who predeceased him by 30 years are waiting for him in a better place. I brush up against him, hoping that the still lingering perfume on my mother’s nightgown will push him to the “other” side. It doesn’t work. He keeps on breathing, quietly now, regularly. I wave off birthday wishes from my siblings like some kind of sick joke and slink back to bed.
The vigil continues. Friends come, sitting with my father, their eyes closed, their hands folded neatly in their laps. When my sister is in the room, there is no talking allowed. I guess it’s about respect for the dying; for me, it’s
cruel and unusual punishment. I’m not getting a thing from watching my father die. He’s emaciated, deformed. Now I can see the chord leading to the pacemaker. For God’s sake, why doesn’t someone figure out how to turn the damn thing off and let the man die in peace? This is when assisted death makes complete sense. Not the Jack Kevorkain style – just a large enough dose of morphine to “snow him under.”
My dad does me a huge favor and waits until the day after my birthday to die. He has the last laugh, passing away quietly when everyone in the house has dozed off. He wouldn’t have wanted all eyes upon him when he took his last breath. He was much too private for that and did things his way one last time. Good for you, dad.
I stare at the all-too-silent man lying in front of me. His bushy eyebrows still hang precariously in his eyes, eyes that remain wide open as if ready for the next adventure. I’m grateful for the chance to see him so peaceful after his eight-day struggle to die. It wasn’t pretty, and the images will haunt me until time plays its magic trick and erases from my mind the moans, the labored breath, the frightfully fast destruction of his physical body. Tears come easily now. There’s no longer any need to stay strong. As heartbreaking as it was, we did as we were asked and upheld my dad’s wishes to die at home without any intervention to save him. My siblings and I were a team and now, having lost both of our parents in the space of weeks, it is our turn to break down and mourn.