As one grows older, problems that seemed unimaginable in the past suddenly appear, unavoidable and insurmountable, taunting and inscrutable. Though I’m a performer, like many performers I’m generally a solitary person. Spending time with Mrs. Manor is my preference, but I can comfortably be alone, and have little need to share the daily happenings of my life with others. As Dr. Evil said “The details of my life are quite inconsequential.”
But upon occasion, a problem that affects millions looms, and there is, I suppose, value in sharing and discussing those issues, though I doubt that most that visit this scruffy little blog do so to share my daily travails. In this case, the issue is the impending death of a beloved parent.
On April 12 of 2015, my father died at the age of 95. He had been living in a nursing home for less than a year, got up one morning, didn’t feel like eating breakfast, lay down and died peacefully within minutes. My mother died many years before, as did Mrs. Manor’s mother.
We are of that age. Our parent’s time has come, and only Mrs. Manor’s father remains, but not for long.
We have done our best for him, my loving, caring wife, and her younger (62) sister and her husband. We kept him in his home in a Chicago suburb for as long as possible, but his ability to drive failed, as did his heart. When he could no longer live alone, we hired home care workers, until that was no longer viable.
Like many of the elderly, he did not take care of his home, and restoring it to saleable condition cost tens of thousands of dollars, leaving relatively little to provide for his care, most of which is now gone. My sister-in-law kindly took him into her home–she’s retired after a long professional career–and provided intensive, daily care until recently.
Leaving his home, his community, all those he knew, took a toll. Anger never truly left him, and he often took it out on her.
Those years weren’t easy for her–and to a lesser degree, the rest of us. He became angry and demanding, prone to ladle on the guilt, something that weighs heavily on her. As his bowels failed, his kidneys began to fail, his heart continued to weaken, a cancer diagnosed earlier progressed, and he gradually lost the ability to walk, the stresses mounted, yet no one wanted to put him in a nursing home, at least in part because of the obscene costs involved, but also because we wanted him to be in familiar surroundings, surrounded by those that love him and care for him as long as possible. He’s our last parent.
One day he would be mentally sharp, the next, couldn’t recognize anyone. There were falls, medical issues, pneumonia here, an infection there, the occasional trip to the emergency room, and a few days in the hospital to stabilize him enough to bring him home.
But that ended soon enough, and a trip to the emergency room after a fall–broken wrist and all of the usual, chronic problems–turned into a hospital admission, and his near death. But he rallied, crashed again, and in a substantially debilitated state, now lies in hospice care. He’ll never come home, never walk again, and is in a constant morphine haze. Sometimes he’s somewhat lucid, but mostly, he sleeps. He wakes briefly to say he’s hungry, but before anything can be brought to him, he’s out again. His breathing is becoming more labored, and the many signs of impending death are mounting.
It is the waiting, and the moral dilemmas that are most damaging.
It breaks the hearts of the women I love to see their father dying, to see him becoming a shell of the big, vigorous man he once was. To be sure, we understand, intellectually, that this is the process of life, appointed unto man once to be born and once to die, but intellect and actual experience are as disparate as they can be in this.
We pray that the Lord will take him quickly and mercifully, that he will not suffer though long, agonizing days or weeks, and that he will be taken into the arms of the Lord to be with his beloved wife Mary who left him so long ago.
We suffer guilt in praying for his death.
Yet the very point of hospice care is to ease the transition to death. Only a little food, and water only to relieve the worst symptoms of hunger and thirst. His intestines are blocked, not only with cancer, but other problems–the poison, generated by his own body, spreads– and surgery would be performed only for its own sake. He wouldn’t leave the table alive. Even eating and drinking is killing him. No medications are administered, even those that regulate his failing heart, only meds for relief from the pain generated by all the internal mechanisms working to end him.
It sounds cruel, but he has chosen not to be resuscitated, and we agree–intellectually. We would want the same. To what end do we struggle against the night? When death is certain, when the body is failing in so many ways that will, of themselves, end us, when we could prolong mere life with machines and medicines, for the sake of additional time alone, where does it end? How do we reconcile it? How do we know we truly did all we could, that our motives were truly altruistic and loving?
Mrs. Manor and I know–intellectually–we have done all that we could, living 18 hours by car away, to be supportive and helpful. She spent a month with her Dad last summer, easing her sister’s burden and enjoying him while he was still able to walk, and mostly, to recognize her. We both wish we could have done more, been there more often, but life makes demands, and it goes on…shouldn’t we have dropped it all, done whatever was required, and damn the consequences. That’s emotion ungrounded in reality talking. We know that, but…
And the money… Hospice alone is $8000 a month. He has a little money left, and perhaps, if he doesn’t linger in agony for months, there will be enough to bury him, to take him back to Illinois to lie beside his wife in a plot he purchased when she died. We’ll be loading the casket in a pickup truck and driving back, which seems right. It has been a long time since most Americans have had an actual hand in the burial rituals of their loved ones. In death we try to hold on to something, anything, as long as we can. That long drive from Wyoming to Illinois will help–and hurt.
I would tell my sister in law how much I love and respect her, how much I appreciate what she, and her husband, did for her father, for us all. I would tell her that we recognize, and will never forget, how much she sacrificed that he could be as comfortable and secure as possible, far more so than so many of the elderly. I would tell her that she could not have done more. He was denied nothing, not food, shelter, the finest available medical care, fellowship, and most importantly, love, even when expressing that love was desperately, brutally hard.
I would tell her that there is nothing to be forgiven, that she has given her all–even more–and succeeded in every way that matters, that it is not necessary to be a saint, only a damned good human being.
Finally, I would pray that he goes to God very soon, that all of his trials and miseries end. And I pray that my sister in law, and my wife, forgive themselves for every failing, real and imagined, just as God has already forgiven them.
Our time is coming, all too soon. The bell tolls for us all, yet forgiving ourselves is the hardest of all.