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Death Becomes Dad

19 Apr

It’s the middle of the night. My dad is up from his bed, again. He does this every night, getting out of the bed for any of a number of reasons. Sometimes he just needs to pee. Sometimes something about his bed is bothering him.

“What’s going on, Dad?” I’ll ask. “Nothing,” he says. “I just have to get away from that bad environment.” I have no idea what it is about his bed that makes it a bad environment. It adjusts to make him as comfortable as possible. He can sleep with his head elevated. He can sleep with his feet elevated. He can sleep with his head and feel elevated so much that he’s almost in a fetal position.

Tonight, though, is different. Tonight, he’s not getting away from something. Tonight, he’s getting ready to go somewhere. He walks into the bathroom and washes his face then carefully combs his hair, the things he does every morning. But it’s 2 a.m., about four hours before he usually does these things. So, I ask, “What’s going on, Dad?”

“I’m getting ready,” he says.

“What are you getting ready for, Dad?”

“A meeting. I’ve got a big meeting with an architect.”

“Where are you meeting an architect, Dad?”

“Downtown,” he says, clearly agitated. Of course, the meeting is downtown. He went downtown to his office everyday for years. I should know this, he seems to be saying as he glowers at me. In his world, I’m the delusional one.

“There’s a meeting tomorrow, Dad. But it’s with your doctor. It’s Sunday, Dad.”

“Okay,” he says in a tone that indicates what I’ve said is clearly not ok. He throws his hands up in frustration.

Fast-forward two months. Dad’s in a nursing home now. His cancer is in remission. The medical kick in the teeth, though, is that he’s dying. Somehow, the chemo, the radiation, the nights my sibs and I spent tending him weren’t enough. He has dementia, pneumonia, urinary retention, leaking heart valves. He might as well have the cancer back.

I know my dad is dying because someone told me. I couldn’t figure this out on my own. That makes me feel stupid. Dying is huge; how can I have missed this? But I am a rational human. When the palliative care professionals tell us that Dad is not likely to get better than he is right now, I believe them.  At least, I believe them enough to tell them I believe them. Then I go home and do what I always do: I google “dying.”

Of course, the Kubler Ross stuff came up, but that’s not what I needed to know. Anger, denial, bargaining, acceptance. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it. I know where the anger is going: straight to my husband who gets to deal with me railing against whatever I am railing against at the moment. It’s never that my dad is dying. People die. Getting mad about Dad dying seems ridiculous; getting mad because my son did something bone-headed and my husband let him get away with it makes perfect sense.

I’m down with the denial, too. Dad’s not dying; he’s got pneumonia and he’ll get better. He’s got dementia but at least he thinks I’m my cousin, who has a vague resemblance to me even with that New Jersey accent. His cancer is in remission. It’s a beautiful day. Nobody dies on beautiful spring days, never mind that Mom died on a beautiful summer day.

Bargaining? Does promising myself to call more often count? Does taking the kids out of school to visit Grandpa count?

Acceptance? Getting there . . . and part of getting there is getting to know what it is I’m accepting. Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I would mysteriously become paralyzingly depressed. Then, just as mysteriously, I would feel better. A lot better. Then, out of the blue, I’d be blue. A diagnosis isn’t a cure, but at least I know what I’m dealing with now. I’m not making it up when I can’t get out of bed. I’m not a stress monkey when I can’t get to sleep. The cycles make sense and the medication makes it easier.

Getting to know death—at least what constitutes dying—has me ticking off the items on the Diagnosis: Death checklist.  Eating less. Check. Sleeping more. Check. Seeing friends and family who aren’t there. Check. Pneumonia. Check. Getting ready to go somewhere important. Check.

I’ve read that many dying people believe there is something very important they must do. Not like, “Oh, I have to apologize to the neighbor for calling him a son of a bitch for years.” Not that kind of thing. Here is how Ulla Mentzel, of A Good Dying, describes it:

A man who loves to sail might ask us to get the map. The all important map. Don’t you know? It’s in the drawer over there.

A soccer player might draw a playing field with an arrow pointing outside the field. Getting ready to leave the playing field.

A farmer might tell you that she has to take the cows into a different field. The one over the hill. It is very important to take them. Soon.

I’ve said more than once that I’d rather be shot in the head than live the way my father is now. “If I can’t walk, can’t remember who you are, drool, wet my pants, poop in my pants, forget to put on my pants,” I said, “put me out of my misery.”

I realize I am a coward and I should have known it. I call myself a Buddhist but I don’t meditate regularly and I am frequently not in the moment. Still, I know that dying is part of living. I place flowers on an altar every week or so. They bloom, they fragrance the house. I leave them in the vase. Their petals droop, then fall until there is nothing on the stem but a flower head. I leave them on the altar. Finally, when they are dry, I take them out of the vase. The cleaning lady admires them when they are fresh, then advocates their removal when they die. But I know, now, that they were dying all along.

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