In my house, a man is dying.
This man spent just months short of eighty years as a proud American, a fiscal conservative, a walker in the woods, an admirer of the sport of tennis, a card shark, a man with an appreciation for order and above all independence. He has been a husband, lover and father. He is my father.
Four years ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which metastisized to his bones shortly after, but he never took treatments. Instead he carried on a full schedule of activities, keeping an eye on local governments, consulting with the school board on which he had served, taking river samples with the Senior Environmental Corps, providing information to new businesses through SCORE. He shared nothing of his illness. Not even with us. That independence thing again.
He managed to pull through the November 2010 veteran’s remembrance program he’d created for our community as an annual event over the last several years, then the holiday rush of all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren popping through. Still nothing. He made arrangements with my one sister to come see him the middle of the first week of January.
But that meeting never happened. The Friday before, he called me in a mid-afternoon wanting to know if my husband or I could come over because he needed help. I’ve got to tell you this was a shock in itself. He never asked for help. He was always the one offering to help others. I thought maybe he was having trouble with his stove or something, so I left the kids in charge of each other for a few and headed down the quarter-mile to his apartment.
When I arrived, he looked pale and anxious. He had papers paid out in stacks on his kitchen table. “Here,” he said handing me his checkbook and check box. “I don’t think I’ll make it till your sister comes Wednesday.” He went on toexplain, in stark, clipped tones, that he had terminal cancer, that he had opted out of all treatments, that he did not want any hospital, that he expected he would die. Implication, before Wednesday. Then he dismissed me to take the important papers home with me.
I stumbled out of the building, tears so thick I could hardly see. Disbelief wrapped around me like a cloak; I didn’t even feel the cold wind. Somehow I drove home, and processed the information with my daughter and my husband, trying to make sense of it. My father was dying. Nothing I could do about it.
Those are hard words for me. I’ve always been a can-do person; guess where I got it from–Mr. Multi-tasker. Exactly. And as an attorney, problem-solving is my forte. But I had here a man who’d made up his mind to let the course run. And not to tell anyone.Or let anyone help.
Even in his apartment, he warned me not to let the news out, because he had political projects that could fail if people knew he wouldn’t be around long enough to defend them. (He has always been a little paranoid about political enemies like that. But then a lot of politicians are, huh?)
Thus began a slow dance of “what-shall-we-do”, to the tune of “Day by Day”. He wanted to stay in his own apartment, surrounded by his tangled ivy vines and mementos of his years as a high school graduate, college graduate, Masters Candidate, Air Force officer, personnel director, political campaign director–even a stint on the Greater Cleveland Growth Board during the years the Cuyahoga River used to catch on fire. Now that’s bravery.
As January became February, though, he became noticably weaker. A couple of falls convinced him that Hospice would be a good option–a real blessing, because it allowed him to accept help without feeling like a burden on us. He made the hard choice to move into a nursing home, and I arranged that in a day, with the help of Hospice. Unfortunately, just as quickly it became apparent his stay there was not a good choice for him, personally. So he came home with me (an option that had always been open to him, but he didn’t want to impose, of course.)
My legal office space fit his needs best, so I hauled out what files I needed and am working off the kitchen table while the Hospice moved in a hospital bed, then a portable commode, then a shower seat, wheelchair, oxygen, all the trappings of a hospital room without the ambience. We got him a spray bottle of water so he could alienate the family cats if they came near, which I think gives him some small bit of delight.
Hospice has continued to come for the last weeks, always cautiously supportive, not optimistic, not pessimistic. Materials they have given me remind me that my father is taking these times of rest to process the life he’s led, and I often do the same thing, remembering the trips to the Kirtland apple orchards, playing tennis, pinochle and bridge late into the night with other family, the time as a little girl I chased him up onto the top of my swing set by pouring cold water on his foot, his help so many times over the years, just for the asking. The time I’d just learned to drive and he wouldn’t let me, even on a cross country trip while he held coffee in one hand, filling his pipe with cherry-scented tobacco in the other and he was driving with his knee. The thousands of times he drove home late at night when he shouldn’t have been driving, and my gratitude he never killed anyone. He’s had an interesting life, many jobs, many women, many odd experiences in his travels. He has never been particularly good at dealing with children, even his own. But I think we can forgive him that.
Saturday afternoon he was up in his wheelchair, kibitzing in the women’s tennis finals on TV, helping organize the room. He had a Denver omelette and some of his favorite pumpernickel bread for dinner. Sunday morning, he had some sort of stroke and hasn’t woken up since. I imagine it’s just a matter of time.
My sisters compliment me for taking him in like this, but it’s not as much for him as it has been for me. We’ve had opportunities in the evenings to sit and talk about old times, new times, shake our heads together, even though it calls up some strong emotions. “Laughter through tears, that’s my favorite emotion,” says Truvy during Steel Magnolias, and we certainly have had that. I wouldn’t have missed it, for all the heartache it brings. I hope his last days and hours are without pain and bring him at last to the peace he deserves.
Last month he wrote a letter to me, terse and unemotional as his usually were, in which he said he was proud of “all his offspring” and that he had a good run and regretted nothing. I sure hope I can say the same when my time comes.