The Third Side of Dying: The Daily Reel

The last three weeks were pathetic.  Every image, every action, every word added to evidence of a life ending.  A life that could no longer live but had just enough energy to fade. Here is my account:

For months all I could remember was him sleeping in the recliner or the hospital bed we had placed in the middle of the living room. We raised the head of the bed in the morning to welcome the day and lower it in the afternoon and evening. He invariably repositioned himself to where his head was wedged between the pillows and the bedrail and to where his feet would start to dangle off the corner of the mattress, uncovered.  I can say I don’t think the bed was comfortable.  

Before he landed permanently in that bed, we got him up to his favorite recliner that usually resided in the basement.  He was a little more interactive then.  He didn’t talk much, but he would react.  A few old friends, the pastor, a cousin, or grandchildren would come to visit, sharing stories and photos.  A sepia-toned picture of the old farmhouse and general store brought a smile to his face and, surprisingly, a tear to his eye.  At that point I’m not sure he knew he was actively dying, but his tears were rare.  I saw them as a gift–a connection to something deeper he didn’t like to expose, just in time.

In the hospital a day before we brought him home to die, the hematologist/oncologist brought us news of a rare and rarely recognized condition.  All I could do in the hallway was ask her questions about her, where she did her training and how long she had worked there.  My dad’s relationship-discovering personality is where I default when I have nothing else to say.  My dad was dying. What else was there to say? The situation hadn’t found a resting place in my mind yet, but my dad’s compulsion to find out about people had roots in me. 

He wasn’t talking much those last weeks, and his protests to our care were mostly carried out in grimaces and shut eyes.  One morning about a week before he died, I saw him stretched out diagonally in his bed to avoid propping up his head on the pillows.  The stack of pillows had been placed there in an attempt to entice him to arouse, to perhaps eat something soon or interact with people.  His objection was displayed by refusing to comply with the perpendicular lines of his bed.  I pushed the button to lower the inclined head of his bed and took out a pillow or two.  “That’s just what you needed,” I said as I saw him relax his posture and scoot back to the center.

“That’s just what I needed,” he managed to whisper as he glanced at me through slit eyes.  Although this is a memory mired in the piteous, it will always be a perfect interaction and indelible memory. 

I remember feeding him food I hoped he would adore.  Barbecue, beans, roast beef sandwiches, cornbread, chili.  He would only take a few bites before closing his eyes and refusing to eat more.  I think he was trying to eat, not because he was hungry but because I was caring for him.  I both appreciated and loathed this.  Why couldn’t he feed himself?  His arms still worked.  Alas, he dwindled to only taking sips of the vanilla protein drinks.  We eventually remembered his love of ice cream.  How could we forget?  Frozen protein drinks saved the day…not really…but we felt better about the situation because he actually took them in with some assumed pleasure.

I don’t know why we kept on doing it, but caring for his diet was futile.  He was taking in less than 500 calories a day and little to no water.  It was time for a urinary catheter and morphine.  The pain we could not relieve with acetaminophen was relieved when the brown liquid drained from his bladder.  The morphine made him sleep, his blood pressure started to drop, and his temperature started to rise.  An infection, maybe? Dying? Yes. 

The jerking of his hands, the dryness of his mouth, the gurgling in his throat, and the persistence of his lungs.  All were disorienting.  Contrary to expectations he kept living for 48 or 72 hours longer than expected. He was placating us, and I don’t understand why.  We waited. Took turns on the death watch. Pushing morphine.  I pushed morphine. Enough to kill a horse.   

I don’t know when these memories stopped playing on an endless loop. Every day for so long the images, sounds, and feelings rushed behind my eyes. The ensuing tears and denial amplifying the injustice of his death. Eventually, the muggy discomfort gave way to something else. Something less.

The Third Side of Dying (a prologue)

It’s taken me awhile to write this post. Even as I type out the words now, I’m not sure how to proceed or how much to divulge. I suppose I should set the agenda by saying my dad died a little over a year ago. He wasn’t the first loved one’s death I’ve ever experienced or even the most premature. His was one that was tragic, and not in the platitude sort of way you might say about a young man who crashed his motorcycle into oncoming traffic. At least in that scenario, actuarial tables would tell you the death was fairly precedented and in no way unexpected at any age.

No, my dad’s death was the lesser of two evils and an end to suffering. It was the dying part that was tragic. Unbearable. Undeserved. For all of us.

What I want to describe is how losing a parent, experiencing the process of dying, begging for it all to be different, and how being the caregiver to a hospice patient slapped my head around 180 degrees–how all of this that I have observed, taught, counseled, cared for in my professional role–rushed over me this time like 50,000 tons of water breaking free from a dam. I am drowned yet alive.

So, maybe I’ll stop there for now. Consider this an introduction. It’s not all gloomy–some will also be downright aggravating (Can I just cancel his cell phone, please?), some will be ironic (funeral food to the rescue!), and some will just soothe (she’s turned into a hugger).

I’ll end this post by resolving how I began. This is merely an intro, a prelude…or simply a map to areas yet to be defined. I will stick with it if you do, following the water where it leads.