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Susan Reeves Whalen

Dignity and Death

Old Songs
Dignity and Death

Dignity and Death
                My grandmother once said, Families are only close until a relative dies and the furniture is being divided up, a rich uncle is arrested for embezzlement, or someone nobody likes gets sick and needs long term care.
                There is nothing reminiscent in our family of the farm, old aunts, extended families, or the untimely death of child, as attorneys, feminists, committed, busy, and productive. That, of course, raises the question, committed to what? Today, I can only add whatever we are doing. We were and are unprepared to deal with a death that will not come.
                We are not exceedingly close in my family. The bond lies as it often does with my mother; a soft, brilliantly young woman of seventy-three with religious convictions and moral fiber of infinite strength.
                My father, with less than little parental hold, likes dying at the age of seventy-eight. The only unusual thing about today is possible that he refuses to relinquish his last breath. Through six years of terminal illness, the loss of a leg, strokes, diabetes, and brain damage, he held his faltering existence. We used to laugh and say he would live forever. We never laugh now as we look into eyes that barely glow and skin turned yellow in room saturated with the odor of death.
                The doctors all agree my father belongs in a nursing home. Not the type of home promoting crags, sing-along, or the buddy system, a place geared to nursing care. To bed pans, insulin shots, enemas, and care givers calling you “honey” in tones that would startle a deaf person. A place where you are fed your soft boiled egg and scolded for wetting the bed. A place where the personnel smile a lot, and call the patients “dear.”
                The seeming nothingness of my father’s existence is being defined by deeply contrasting people called family, physicians, and social workers. Our hearts, it seems, burn differently. Quietly, I wonder if one so damaged can be rekindled in a place with linoleum floors and metal beds. Can I sneak a little brown dog into a nursing home? Can I shed love where despair grows without hope? What of this system that advocates human store houses and allows the young and the well to become only visitors in the parents’ lives? When the illustrations of the spirit fade due to memory loss, garbled speech and unrecognized friends, do we shrink from the roles of our forefathers? Why, as care providers, do we become tangled in a struggle to retread to our secure, removed lifestyles?
                Time is running out for a precious old guy who, in the prime of life, was called a doctor, a man who fished and hunted and loved that old New England concept of family and living. Memories of being his child take tremendous courage. He was everything to a little kid with fat brown braids and slowly a cherished dream as time and age spent their course on him.
                What I remember is all that I can never touch again. Riding ten miles an hour through the Berkshire Hills in his old Nash Rambler. Him chewing on his cigar and me singing as though the world could never laugh. Patients paid him with garden vegetables; often they never paid him at all. Answering services were unheard of and patients could expect care day or night. Too often his waiting room filled and over flowed as he spoke of the cardinals nested in our backyard, or the best way to wash long woolen underwear. He was a kind man demonstrating great regard for some rather simple life experience. He would often sit for hours at our small airport watching the planes come and go. Sometimes, taking up a rattling old single engine to fly in leaps and circles that caused us to scream with fear and delight.
                He never bothered with a will. I doubt he planned to die. Religion was an unpracticed event, yet the Lord’s Prayer turned up on a small card beside his bed towards the end of his life. Although I know he studied the words, I shall never know if he whispered them aloud in a quiet attempt to meet a God he hardly knew.
                His family cannot assume his care or will not. The cannots are for good reasons like illness, large families, even lack of nursing care. The wont’s attack the basic meaning of humanity.
                Let my father die, is a cop out. It settles him and leaves us to untested moments of truth.
                Time lingers as we wait in his hospital room, yet the fundament assumptions about family, life, death, even eternal promises are illusions gone. There is nothing sweet about this farewell. The seeming madness created by my father’s illness, is being defined by professionals skilled at placing the elderly in nursing homes. The loneliness is forbidding and the space created between each of us swells only to vanish as the details are worked out.
                The room is hushed with whispers, as he lies silently staring at the ceiling, as a person in a coma. I would like to think he is aware and swearing away to himself – don’t do this to me, I was always there when you needed me. But then again, I hope he is not aware because they are doing it to him.
                My father can’t come home and my mother looks so sad. She says she’ll miss him and she hopes he understands. My siblings look so set, so sure the decision is right. The doctor is aloof and hurried.
                God, I pray, my father doesn’t care.