My father is dying. That, in and of itself, means nothing. We’re all dying, each of us, from the moment we’re born. Too often people lose sight of the cycle of life, and are terrified of what happens when life ends.
My father is one of those people. My father is full of fear. His life has been full of fear. It started with parental and sibling abuse as a child. The fear that comes from not being able to trust those closest to you is corrosive. That fear prevented my father from ever really understanding my love for him, and of the love and respect of many people whose lives he touched. Perhaps because there was so much fear in his life he’s now afraid of death. I will never know for sure.
What I do know is that with the advice and support of family, and of the medical professionals caring for my father, I made the decision to move my father to hospice. Sometime in the next two days, the hospice team will remove the ventilator and feeding tube that have been keeping him alive for the last two months. Sometime after that, my father will die.
I know this sounds very clinical, somewhat cruel, and (to some) immoral. But this decision is very carefully considered. When the mechanical and medical support began, there was a chance – a small chance, but a real chance – that Dad would recover enough to be able to enjoy some part of his life: building and flying his radio controlled model airplanes, researching and creating his inventions, or writing his “crazy papers” (my term) documenting his harassment by various mysterious parties (the Seaman’s Union, the U.S. Marines, and pharmaceutical companies, to name a few).
But for a 79 year old man with a history of diabetes and high blood pressure, a survivor of cancer, and who had recently suffered a series of mini-strokes, the mechanical and medical support are not enough to allow his body to heal itself. I watch my father lying in that hospital bed, unable to squeeze my hand to let me know he heard my voice, unable to control his bodily functions, and I know this is not the man I grew up loving and fighting in order to understand him. His spirit is there, yes; but it is trapped inside a failing body. He will not get better. Left on the ventilator and the PIC line and the hydration line, his heart will continue to function. But other organs – his kidneys, his liver – will fail. The accumulation of metabolic waste in the body will poison him. His muscles will contract, and he will fold into a posture resembling the fetal position.
I will be with my father as we remove the medical support that might have allowed him to recover, and now is simply keeping him functioning. The hospice team will be working to make sure his pain is controlled, and he is made as comfortable as humanly possible. Music will be playing – country music, probably Patsy Cline, certainly Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and maybe Lucinda Williams. Yes, the music is full of the loneliness of the High Plains, and might seem like the least comforting thing to play to a dying man. But I know it’s the music he listened to for hours, traveling at sea or on the highway. It is a friend, comforting him. I’ll be there, letting my father know that he will always be a part of me, and is loved – and that he will live on in not just my memory, but of many, many people whose lives he touched.
With grace moving in the world, my father will stop being afraid, and his spirit will at last be free.