Some decisions are hard to make. Some decisions are hard to make even when it’s the right thing to do.
Last year, October 16th, 2009 I had Leika euthanized. It was time. You know. I didn’t want her to suffer a day longer. That’s how it goes with pets. You’re expected to do what’s best and that means letting them go at the end.
About two weeks ago the doctors at the Baltimore VA Hospital called a meeting with my sister and me. In essence they were telling us that they had done everything they could do. They did some tests to be sure and concluded that my dad was in a persistent vegetative state. He wasn’t going to get any better.
They showed us his advanced directive and it clearly stated my father’s wishes in this circumstance. My sister got some of the family together to show them the advanced directive and to explain that we — barring a miracle — were going to tell the doctors to remove him from life support — breathing machine, food and water. We didn’t realize that an advance directive is legally binding, but we had come to the conclusion and, thankfully, we were all in reluctant agreement.
My father would not want to be like this. He was proud and independent. No matter what kind of shape he was in he made his own way. And he was suffering. With all of the machines and constant activity in the ICU. All of the tubes and wires going in and out of him. There were times when I’d go in and his eyes would be red with tears and pain. There was just enough of him there to suffer. With no medical chance of recovery.
I asked the doctors in the meeting if depriving someone of food and water — would that hurt? Would he suffer? I mean, if I were dying from dehydration I’d be in agony. I’ve heard that it’s very painful. One of the doctors explained that when you’re sick, when you’re dying, you don’t want to eat and drink. Actually, he said, “We have to be careful of the words we use.”
Dehydration and starvation imply a lot of things. Intellectually, I understood him. But I didn’t feel it. I’ve been worried all this week about it. I understand what the doctor was saying but it’s hard to relate to. It’s hard to understand that dying from lack of food or water wouldn’t hurt. But animals, when they get very sick, will find a quiet place to retreat to, refuse food and water and get on with it. I guess people are the same. We just usually have so much intervention that it’s hard to think of it that way.
The doctor told us point blank that it was all of their efforts that were now causing my dad to suffer. Tubes down his throat. Tubes directly into his stomach for feeding. Tubes to collect waste.
So on Monday they removed my dad from life support and on Wednesday he was moved to a hospice unit. I took the day off work on Friday with the intent of going to check on him and see how he was doing. I had my plan all worked out. I was having stomach issues the previous day so I figured I’d eat something that morning and see how I did. Then I’d get on the road and avoid evening rush hour traffic. For some reason I fell asleep watching TV. And I hit rush hour traffic big time. I finally got to the VA facility and wandered around for a while looking for a nurse or someone to get directions to the hospice area.
Apparently, I decided to use my brain so I took the elevator to another floor where I wandered around some more. Lost. And out of a corridor steps my big sister. I don’t know how many little things came together for us to be in that exact place at that exact time but it was welcome. It was meant.
In a way it was hard for us to see our dad like that. He looked waxy but we later found out that it was because the nurses will put grease on a hospice patient’s skin to help ward off infections. But here’s the surprising bit. He looked peaceful. He looked comfortable. For the first time in about two months. The doctor was right. In the ICU he had been struggling. He had been in pain.
In the hospice unit he wasn’t surrounded by machines. The room was softly lit. The nurses adjusted the temperature to suit him.
I’m sure if he had any awareness left that he was happy to see me and my sister there together. I hope so.
Today, two days later and much sooner than I expected, my sister called to tell me that our dad died. It’s strange but we’ve been mourning for two months so it didn’t hit with the ferocity of a sudden loss. But still.
I had brunch with friends today. Which turned into a long day of lazily hanging out and talking. Good times. Lot of fun. Great people. That’s what I was doing when Daddy died. On one hand I feel guilty but on the other hand he would want me to be having fun with friends. To be happy.
I was going to drive up but … I don’t know what to do. I have no idea what I would do if I went. Or where to go. No idea. I came home. Figured I would write this since all this stuff has been on my mind, as you can imagine.
It’s strange, but I’ve been thinking for the past few weeks — there are times when I really wish I had a girlfriend. Or, like. That’s kind of a strange thing to say right now. I mean, everybody’s got stuff going on, right. Some times or phases are harder than others. It’s hard to get up and at it in the morning sometimes. And it’s hard to come home sometimes. I mean, a back rub would go a long way right now. Jesus. Something. Some act of commiseration and consolation. Someone who recharges me. Someone who makes me feel more alive at the end of the day than I felt when I left work. Who reminds me that I can handle whatever.
The longitudinal lack thereof has a cumulative effect on a soul.
But then again, like the song says: encourage yourself.
Yesterday I went into work to pick up the laptop because there’s some things I need to get done. I didn’t feel like going home, though, so I drove into DC. Not in any direction really. Just around. I decided to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time now. To check out the trail off of Connecticut and Albemarle that I learned about from a George Pelecanos novel. I think it ultimately connects to Rock Creek Park. Maybe. But I was running out of light. I went to read a pamphlet on dying. I also got the Pano app for the iPhone, which lets you take panoramic pictures so I was playing with my iPhone. And recorded that little :40 video, which is kind of weird but that’s what I did.
I obviously don’t know what I’m doing, though. It looks crappy on YouTube. Sorry. It’s the poem by Henry Van Dyke that is included in the “Gone from My Sight” booklet the doctor gave us.
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!”
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear the load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!” There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: “Here she comes!”
And that is dying.
~Henry Van Dyke
I’ll probably write more in a few days or weeks. There are a lot of things about my dad that I don’t know. I don’t know his father’s name. I never met my father’s father, my paternal grandfather He died of black lung, if I remember correctly, before I was born.
My dad was 64. His birthday was October 2nd. That’s not that old. My maternal grandfather died at 66, I think. I can’t help but think what a loss it is. We were just getting to know my dad. Getting to know him from having him around. I … did not do a good job of spending time with him. But … I am glad to have had the time with him that I did. I feel like we could have had another twenty years, though. I feel robbed. Take care of yourselves, people.
He used to tell me that he knew that I loved him. That I was like him. Even though I didn’t call or stop by that often it didn’t mean that I didn’t love him. My dad.
So let me leave you with one short memory:
Every once in a while we would go out for dinner or something. It was strange at first because I’d never spent time one on one with my dad as an adult before. We went to Phillips at the Inner Harbor one night. There was a guy, a roving musician, with a banjo walking around to tables and playing/singing for tips. The banjo player started heading our way and I was thinking, “Oh no. I don’t feel like dealing with this. People are going to be looking over here. It’s going to be all awkward sending this dude away.”
So the banjoist comes over to our table, sure enough, and says, “You guys have any requests?”
My dad looks at him. Takes a few dollars out of his pocket. Hands it to the guy and says, “How about … Sweet Home Alabama.”
“I know that one.”
The guy starts playing “Sweet Home Alabama” and my dad is singing along and I’m trying a little on the chorus. The words we knew, anyway.