Thursday, April 07, 2016

And flights of angels....

I swear to God, when you were young you used to gather your cloak about you and go where you wanted to go.  But when you have grown old, you'll stretch out your arms, and someone else will get you ready and take you where you don't want to go."--John 21:18, SV

So, my father is suffering from:

Congestive heart failure
A blood cancer that isn't leukemia
skin cancers (not melanomas)
an aneurysm in his brain which should have led to a stroke by now, but never has (an attempted surgery to correct it couldn't be done)
and now, some form of epilepsy.

I should add he's had three heart attacks and two heart surgeries (back when we still called them "open heart surgeries").  And he smoked like a chimney for well over 50 years (maybe 60; I don't even remember now when he finally quit).  Frankly, we're all surprised he's still alive.

He's just been diagnosed with a "mass" (two, actually; the doctors will not, however, call either one "tumors") on his brain, which may be causing the epileptic seizures.  He's also nearly deaf and has only four of his own teeth.

He's not a candidate for euthanasia, by any standards, even though his condition has, in less than a week, gone rapidly downhill.  Last summer my mother was in and out of the hospital for three months; now my father seems to be setting that pace, and after living on his own for almost 90 years (he's about a week away from the milestone), it seems clear he's going to need to move from assisted living to nursing care; when he can stay out of the hospital long enough.

Is he going to die?  Eventually.  Is he going to die now?  Who can say?  Every time the phone rings since Sunday (when he had his first seizure), I expect it to be the one telling me to come to the hospital, it's all over.

I'll have to expect it again and again, for a long time.  That's okay.  That's life.  No one in the family wants him dead, no one thinks he's a burden, or would be "better off," or that "it's time."

Death is seldom that convenient.  To do anything but treat him, now, would be murder; or cruelty.  There is a question of life support, of doing more when it clearly isn't useful.  The masses in his brain, for example:  inoperable because of his age.  Are they going to kill him?  Maybe.  We can live with that, and he can, too.  He was lucid enough to tell me so two days ago.

I bring this up because he had a bad time last night.  It was hard to tell if he was not lucid (he wasn't, to some degree; but people in reality never act like actors portraying the mentally afflicted:  acting always exaggerates a narrative we all agree on.  Reality is much less accommodating.)  He had his teeth out when I got to his apartment.  It is very hard to articulate without teeth, a truth I hope you never learn.  He also had his hearing aids out, so I had to yell to be heard.  He was also stubborn and petulant, more like a child than an octogenarian.  I found out later there was more reason to this than I supposed (some things deserve discretion, so trust me).  He wanted me to help him to the shower.  I refused, on the grounds I'm not qualified to keep him from falling in the shower (he's still very tired from the hospital visit, and his balance is not good on his best days).  I finally got him to bed (the psychological joys of arguing with your father about bedtime will be passed over here.  We all have family, we all have our burdens to share.  Mine don't place me above you.)

Two hours later he'd fallen out of bed, was diagnosed with more seizures, and taken back to the hospital.

Will he improve?  For his sake and my mother's, I hope so.  More likely he won't; but I've said that about one parent or the other for some years now, after such events (which usually last weeks, not days).  Can I control this death in any way?  Is this even death we are all experiencing?

I think so.  Tolstoy's story was "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."  It starts with the funeral, then goes back to the birth of Ilyich and continues until he dies, the event of the story just before the funeral where we began.  I always ask my students:  which part of this story is "the death" of the title?  The last word?  One word before?  All of them?  Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" engages the same question:  is Willy's death when the car crashes off-stage?  Or is it the whole 24 hours or so of the play, from Willy coming home to Willy going to his boss the next day to Willy realizing he has no options left by nightfall?  Is death a moment in time, or is it longer than that?

And is that why we fear it?  Not because we can anticipate it, but because we have to live through it, even though, as Wittgenstein said, it's the only experience of life that is not lived through?  Well, maybe not for the individual who dies; but it is lived through for the rest of us.

And I'm not sure (although it takes some explanation, admittedly) that for that we shouldn't say:  "Thanks be to God."


  1. Poignant and moving post, Rmj. When children are forced into the role of parents to their parents, it's so hard. Prayers and good wishes for your father and mother and for you, too.

  2. I hold you all in the Light.

  3. The modern American dread of anything to do with the impairments of old age, the hard, difficult, experience of dying blocks out anything we could learn from it or the important experiences that come with those things. The rapidly developing "ethical" encouragement to avoid those with a quick, economical and tidy death is one of the biggest warning signs of the intentional devaluing of life. Those economic efficiencies can be asserted at any point, the encouragement to avoid the pain that will come with a natural death, just another efficiency. If we can be talked out of valuing each other to the extent that those closest to us aren't worth the pain to us of their natural death, where the most costly of sweetness and humanity is found in assuming some of the most searing of responsibilities, then we can't but devalue the entire life.

    It's something you don't get closure on, it's right that it is a part of you from now on. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. It keeps us open to an ongoing relationship. At least that's what I've found.

    I hope you, your whole family, your mother and your father are always in the experience of grace.