He is sitting on the couch in the living room he once shared with his wife, who is now in a facility … an institution … a nursing home. Any way you say it, it still has a depersonalized, antiseptic, horrific feel about it. And this is my father. He is dying of lung cancer. The doctor has given him six months.
I am sitting in the big blue chair, a chair that arrived at our house decades before with my very elderly Aunt. My Aunt sat in this same chair day in and day out for years, reciting the rosary. I have yet to say a rosary in the chair. It’s a chair that is as ancient as my Aunt was, going back to the days when the women all wore long dresses and crinolines.
My father is blind; I could list his other ailments here but I won’t. He has motored on, stoic as ever, with a joke or a sarcastic comment always hidden up his sleeve to make those unbearable and emotional moments as light as he could. I am grateful now for that blindness as I sit in the big corduroy blue chair while my father tells me in no uncertain terms that he is content, ready to die and has no regrets. “And I don’t want any bloody tears at my funeral either,” he quips.
That was four years ago and yet it feels as if that day happened a moment ago. Death, it seems, comes for us more than once. It has a way of hanging around before it finally takes the one you love.
“When I’m dead I want you to make sure you look after your mother,” my father instructed me.
“Dad, mom is the last person you need to worry about right now. You need to think about yourself, about getting healthy,” I said.
My mother was my father’s only concern, really. Apart from getting his affairs in order, such as his funeral, his task before he left this earth was to ensure that all of his children would continue to support their mother who was suffering with Alzheimer’s.
Back in his living room on that cold rainy April, my father and I discussed many topics. Unable to see how distraught I was, he talked about his wife, his life and his last wishes.
“I don’t want any blubbering at the funeral. I don’t want you spending any money on flowers either. It’s a waste of money,” he said to me.
“Make sure you visit your mother often after I’m gone.”
“I think everything is in order, no regrets,” my dad said to me.
“I love you Dad “I said
“I love you too, but I don’t want any of that hugging and kissy crap,” he said.
My mother, who is in failing health after eighty nine years on this earth and has died more than once at several different times during her lifetime, has to have decisions made for her now. Unlike with my father I have no idea what she is thinking due to her very serious decline as a result of Alzheimer’s.
From an early age she battled death and death never won. My mom is feisty, opinionated, and, some might say, obnoxious, but one thing my mom isn’t, and that’s a quitter.
Yet, the Alzheimer’s laid its claim when she was in her eighties, killing bits of her as slowly and surely as the seasons melded one into another. This disease takes no prisoners; once it has you by the throat it slowly strangles you, every moment, every memory every last part of your true self, till all that is left is what you manage to hide deep in the recess of your mind.
So now we are left with a difficult decision once again concerning my mother’s care. After her third trip to the ER the doctor suggested to my sister that we change her level of care from a stage 2 to a stage 3. Dear God in heaven, did you even know there were stages of care? I certainly had no idea.
The technology of today, our medicine, have left us struggling with decisions that years ago we would not even have to think about. Our elderly parents would have died in their sleep in their own beds — no fanfare, no ambulances, no needles, no poking or prodding. Just old-fashioned death at your door and he would only come for you once.
My father’s voice lingers: “Look after your mom,” he said to us so often before he died. Now we have to make the best decisions for her our mother that we can. Not an easy task but one I have faith we will perform with love, sincerity and compassion.
It has been many years now since both of my parents have died, my father in 2007 and my mother in 2011. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about them. That I don’t feel thankful for those precious moments before death took them, moments of clarity and truth. When the rawness of life opens itself up and makes one known, when there is real connection. To me this is what death does: it reveals us to us. And I am grateful to have had those moments with both of my parents as they aged, as death rallied around each corner, at each crisis, and finally at the end holding their hands as they moved onto the great beyond.
Photos by Martha Farley. All rights reserved.