UPDATE: It’s been sixteen years now. The following thoughts and feelings about my father still hold true. My sister has since died (recently). I still mourn my mother and have very complicated grief issues about my sister.
* * *
Six years ago, my father celebrated his 80th birthday. We went out to dinner with him, and he was in a very jovial mood, flirting with the waitresses, asking for extra water, ice, anything to get the attractive young ladies to come back to the table as often as possible.
At that time, my mother was in hospice, and we all knew she would not be coming home again, ever. My father had decided to stop visiting her, since my mother didn’t recognize him by name at times, and called him “that man,” argued with him, and could “do nothing for him.” Narcissistic? I think so. Her role was to take care of him, and he was angry and disgusted that she was losing herself to Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Why visit someone who could do nothing for you? As my sister, his other daughter, was quite ill herself and his sons lived out of state, I would be the one visiting my mother. I assured him that she did want to see him.
After dinner, my father announced that he was no longer going to take any of his medicines. He was sick of the side effects, he said, and he didn’t trust doctors anyway. He was simply not going to put up with the doctor’s “incompetence.” He also announced that he was angry my mother would not be there for him for the heart valve surgery he was scheduled to have, so he was not going to have the surgery at all.
A few days later, I was speaking to my father on the phone late one night, and he said he felt strange. We took him to the emergency room, where we learned he had a minor stroke.
At the hospital, we asked him if he’d like anything. He said something I cannot really write about here, but it had to do with wanting a special visit from the very well-endowed waitress that served him his birthday dinner.
After a few more days, he began to feel better and agreed to the heart valve surgery. I was speaking to him over the phone when he said…I’m feeling weird again… and as I spoke to him, he was having a major stroke from which he could not and would not recover.
By the time we got to the hospital, my father was hooked up to life support machines. His body was nearly convulsing on the bed, up and down, up and down, up and down. It was hideous. My niece was very pregnant at the time and was there, as was my nephew and sister, who was herself sick. My dear husband was there with me, knowing I was terrified; I am terribly phobic about hospitals, medical procedures, etc. And here was my father being forced to “breathe,” his body nearly up off the bed.
Was he conscious? No. Any chance of a recovery? No, it was a major stroke and most likely brain death already happened.
After doing blood tests, doctors found no traces whatsoever of the medicines he was supposed to be taking. They believed he stopped taking his medicines before he told us, and was not taking them in the hospital at all. He truly meant it when he said he had enough medicines for one lifetime.
My sister had power of attorney and a copy of my father’s written request not to be kept on life support.
* * *
The physician seemed very angry with us, told us we would be killing our father. My sister went to get another copy of the end of life papers my father had signed years before, after he saw his mother be kept on life support for a long time.
After looking over the papers carefully, the hospital agreed that the power of attorney did had the power to have the tubes removed. First, the doctor gave him a shot of morphine to be sure he would not be in pain, in case he did return to consciousness.
We left the room as the life support tubes and machines were removed, all except for a monitor that read brain activity.
* * *
When we went back into my father’s hospital room, we watched the monitor–in less than 5 minutes, complete flat line, no brain activity. In just a few minutes, he was absolutely, no question about it dead.
Had we killed him by having the machines turned off, the tubes removed? I didn’t have the courage to be the one to make the decision. I am glad I didn’t’ have to make the decision. I am glad he found someone who would do this for him, for I could not. I am glad he saw his mother’s end of life and decided this was not for him.
But did we kill him? Who is to decide how an older person should end his or her life–for that is what not taking his medicines meant. He had one stroke then another soon after taking his medicines.
I’d never seen anyone die before. To watch brain waves go completely flat in such a short time told the medical staff that he had been dead before, just kept alive by machines forcing in oxygen and forcing his heart to beat. Is this death, I wonder? He did not seem alive on that awful table with the tubes and the machines–it seemed cruel and gruesome.
I don’t know all the medical terms, and my memory may be off since it was so emotional.
* * *
But it was exactly six years ago, and dreams haunt me. Nightmares. I wasn’t even aware of the anniversary coming up, but my body remembered somehow, and the nightmares have been vivid.
Gruesome–gruesome images–the body forced up and down on life support. The memory of talking to him and hearing the stroke hit him hard, the last words he ever said…I feel weird, can you come?
* * *
Life and death issues. Who is to decide? Was it his right to decide–I simply don’t want to take my medicines anymore? At 80 years old, he’d been pretty spry up to then. Perhaps it was depression over my mother, or simply realizing life wasn’t going to get any easier for him.
Or it might have simply been his arrogance of being angry with my mother for not taking care of him, anger at the world that he had to take medicines whose side effects he didn’t like. He had quite a streak of arrogance, of feeling that he was somehow better or deserved better, and quite a streak of narcissism, if I understand that correctly–such as taking my mother’s Alzheimer’s as an insult to him rather than a heartbreak that it was.
And then nothing. Nothing whatsoever. For reasons I cannot go into, there was no closure, no saying good bye.
Six month later, my mother died. I felt active and wretched grief for a long time after her death. It was shortly after my best friend died, two other close friends, and my husband’s best friend. It was truly a terrible time, but the close deaths stopped and I believe I was able to grieve for my mother, my much loved friends. Broken hearted for too many deaths too close together–it was all mixed up. Who was I crying for now? Sunglasses became a good friend.
Work during the day, smile while you teach, then reach for the sunglasses as the weeping came in waves, for many long months. It’s been long enough now that I can think of my mother and friends with great fondness and happiness to remember them, while I still miss them greatly.
But my father? More complicated. I knew somehow I would have to put dealing with his death on hold, to wait a while–it was simply too much.
Six years later, I believe I am beginning to mourn for my father, wish things could have been different between us, that his life and our family could have been different. He was a brilliant and talented person, but very cruel and bitter at times. Hysterically funny at times. Charming at times.
In another age, he might have been a famous something or other–I’m not sure what.
But I recognize this feeling, this grief, as something I felt growing up when I would think of “father.” I believe I mourned not having a father my entire life, as strange as that sounds. I knew I’d have to be my own father, raise myself as best as I could.
I guessed a lot. Read a lot. Tried to make a science on how to raise myself properly. What I am today is a hit or miss childhood of trying to raise myself with the help of some wonderful mentors, teachers, kind adults in my life who never knew of the absolute hell of a pretend childhood. They never knew how I loved them for their mentoring.
As to my father, I so wish I could speak to him again, for time does help heal. Would we be able to speak of some matters that went unsaid? Probably not.
But I still feel it was wrong to let someone pass without a formal good bye, glad to have known you, your life meant something.
Perhaps I am telling him this in my very vivid dreams: good bye father, I am sorry it wasn’t better between us, your life had meaning. Like it or not, I see more of him in myself every year–the tendency to love drama, the silly story telling, the endless need to tell and hear stories–the love of art–the strong emotions, even some of my very weaknesses I loathed in him I see clearly in myself now.
My husband always tells me no one is all bad; he reminds me often that there can be much to love in even people who do great evil–we need to find that good, that lovable part and encourage it, acknowledge it–not just the bad that people do.
For this, I will always love him, my husband: he has helped me see that life is not all good or bad, all evil or good–there are many shades–something my father detested in people, wishy washiness he called it, all that damn grayness or shades of mambly pambliness–you either loved or hated him or nothing in between.
Sorry, father, I must side here with the living one I love. I did not love you, and for that I am ashamed and sorry. I loved you as a human being, my fellow human being, but not as a father. That was not possible for me. I pitied you. I was slightly in awe of your keen intelligence and eerie ability to hone in on others weaknesses and exploit them, but that is not love.
Six years later, I begin to say good bye to my father, six years after his death. I will not romanticize his life due to the passing of time, but am perhaps better able to begin dealing with his life and death with the help of the passage of time. Perhaps to see the good and the bad, the love, terror, humor, and sadness that can co-exist in one person.