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Friday, April 20, 2012

Life Lessons from Death

Watching someone wait to die is a terrible thing. It's also an eye-opener.

My 87-year-old father was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Because of his age and health status, treatment options were extremely limited.

He refused any treatment, even physical therapy to make him more comfortable. He wanted nothing other than pain relief. Despite the drugs he was given, he was still in a lot of pain.

His wishes were very clear; he wanted to die. But he also wanted to go home, so his doctor removed the IV lines and his family began to prepare to carry out his wishes. Fortunately, all the siblings were in complete agreement about what to do -- get our father home, and let him make as many decisions as possible regarding his care.

Seeing my father in a hospital bed, frail and too weak even to roll over, was very difficult. Although he has had two major strokes and several small ones, until he was hospitalized a month ago, he was able to care for himself, walk (albeit slowly) and drive. Now he is facing death. He is extremely weak, completely bedridden, and he needs assistance with everything. His eyes are sometimes open, but his gaze is elsewhere.

We had arranged with a local hospice to provide medical care and a hospital bed, and we hired a wonderful live-in caregiver. The bed was set up in the living room so our father could watch television and look out his patio door into the woods nearby. But despite our best efforts, he never went home again.

On the day we had hoped to have him transported home, it became obvious that he needed more care and more pain management than his caregiver could provide. There was room at the hospice facility, so he was taken there by ambulance. This facility is a non-profit organization with a wonderful staff of doctors and nurses who specialize in palliative care, managing chronic medical conditions and end-of-life issues.

There he remains, drifting in and out of awareness. All three of his children have said their goodbyes. For us, waiting for him to die has been a "weird" thing, to quote my daughter. We know he will not recover; he won't get better. So it is a waiting game, with a known outcome but an unknown timetable.

Watching our father go through this has made us aware of the fragility of life and what is  truly important. My sister commented that it was strange to realize that all of my father's material possessions-- he lives in a two-bedroom condo in an assisted living facility so he doesn't have a huge amount of possessions -- suddenly seem insignificant. These things, which had value and were important to him, now are just things. We will donate his clothes to Goodwill. Family heirlooms and keepsakes will be divided among the children. Furniture will be made available to residents of the facility, and anything remaining will be donated to charity. Any remaining non-perishable foods will be donated to the local food pantry or residents. Soon the condo itself will be listed for sale, and nothing but photographs, a few personal items and some family heirlooms will remain with the children. And of course, the memories his children and grandchildren will hold.

This experience also has encouraged us to live life while we can: to take those long-dreamed-of trips, do things now rather than later, donate to the charities important to us, spend time with our children. The clock is ticking on each of our lives, and none of knows when our time will run out.

This also has brought my brother and me closer together. We don't see each other often (he lives in Alaska, I in New Mexico), but we have grown closer since our father's illness. We stayed in our father's condo and ate together at least twice every day for two weeks. All the petty arguments and personality clashes of the past were forgotten, as we and my sister pulled together to do what was best for our father.

It's a cliche, but it shouldn't take a parent's terminal illness to cause us to forge new relationships with our siblings, our spouses and our children, or to finally recognize what is truly important in life.