The Hard Work of Dying

My father's terminal illness diagnosis came early June, about 3 weeks after he presented with a broken collar bone--the result of his simply rolling over in bed.  My stepmom was visiting her daughter in Illinois.  My father was not alarmed; he called me to tell me he was driving himself to the emergency room.  "No, Dad.  Call your orthopedic and ask them to see you today."

Our odyssey began with this left collarbone "pathological break."  Both he and I knew that nothing good would unfold from this.  I took him home and immediately hit the internet.  He went either that afternoon or the next day to The Cremation Society and took care of things. 

The prevailing question for all of us is "How long?"  It had less of an urgency at the beginning as my father felt reasonably well, was ambulatory, and could engage in all of the activities that he could enjoy.  The urgency of the ask escalated with the more debilitating effects of the progress of his stage IV liver cancer:  cane, walker,  wheel chair, furniture moving belt to go from bed to bedside pot--the latter being a surprising freedom clung to when all other freedom from the bed is now out of reach.

My father's younger brother at 72 is 12 years my father's junior, came to help us last Tuesday.  While I know many of the stories on my mother's side of the family, largely due to my Nanny telling them in an animated fashion while drinking coffee around the kitchen table, my father's history is somewhat hidden.  My uncle tells my sister, "You daddy is the closest thing to a father that I ever had."  He tells me, "We would have starved if it had not been for your daddy."  He can engage with my father in a way that we cannot given their shared history.  It is an enormous comfort to both my stepmom, sister and I as well as my Dad to have him here.  It is not service to our family that I will ever forget.

Each day is now measured by fluid and food (if any) intake, outflow and pain management.  My uncle is able to use the furniture moving strap I rummaged out of my garage to help lift my dad's torso up, and then helping him pivot to the bedside commode.  This man who has always been independent has reduced his current situation as "A stallion put in a corral."  The last ambulation from the bed to the commode will soon be lost. Who would have thought that such a modest movement would be the one last freedom of a dying man? 

My father's faith accepts that God will take him when He is ready.  When I kiss my father each night, I say to him, "I hope that you die tonight."  My stepmom's visiting  friend heard me say this, and looked shocked.  To a dying man in misery, saying "I hope that you die tonight (or sometimes I say, I hope that you go to perpetual rest)" is the same as saying, "I hope that you have a nice day."  It is something that he prays for.

My stepmom's friend was great to have around.  She is thoughtful and energetic.  However, she has  not had the 2 a.m conversations with my father who asks, "How can I feel so low, and still be alive?" Or, "I don't know how much longer I can take this."  My father is a tough old bird--witnessed by the fact that he is still with us.  His toughness is working against his goal of transitioning quickly.  

Until I wrote this post, I had not considered how much the nearing of death is much like the nearing of birth.  Presuming that one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, as with finding out that one is pregnant, the time horizon steadily truncates from months, to weeks to days to hours to minutes. One ends with a new life being thrust into the world, the other with a life removed from this world. Both are as regular and ordinary as the sun rising and setting, but until we experience it for ourselves, we cannot fully appreciate the process.

We have honored my dad's desire to die at home. Being a participant in the sacred process of leaving this world, and offering comfort to a loved one preparing to depart is truly an honor and a privilege--as it is with welcoming a new life.  He is still concerned that he is a burden to us.  He is not.  But his frailty means that we need to enlist the help of professional care givers to give my dad a sense that others are helping and give us a sense that his needs can be met for hygiene and other comforts.  (One of the caregivers complimented us on how clean he was and how well-conditioned his skin was).  We've done our best, but his ability to participate is impaired.  We need professionals to help position him so that he is not injured.

My father has already made it past the mid-point in the bell curve for his diagnoses.  In the normal course of events, a baby is born on his/her own schedule, and a person will die on his or her own schedule.  All we onlookers can do is be there to smooth the passage into the world or out of it.  Throughout the process, I am reminded that I am my father's daughter:  pragmatic, efficacious, objective. 


Post a Comment