Day of the Dead–October 31 1995

At age 88, my father Henry was in good health and spirits, except for an episode of disorientation and seizure in early May. He participated in aerobics at the Y twice a week, was active in community organizations, went sketching regularly with the Thursday painters, and took hikes with me.

At the end of September, he started losing his memory and balance. Without the consent of his primary care physician, he consulted a neurologist, who ordered tests which showed terminal brain cancer. In the hospital for a biopsy, he fell and broke his pelvis after untying his restraints and getting up to pee at night. This injury left him unable to walk or to urinate. In the transitional care center he lost control over his emotions and would often break into tears. Troubled by persecution fantasies and hallucinations, he repeatedly thanked and apologized to those who were looking after him. “This is not me, I’m not myself,” he protested. He asked for a visit from his grandson Joe, who flew in from Idaho for a weekend. One morning when I visited Henry before work, he talked about how present his grandparents were to him now. Then he wept bitterly and said he wasn’t ready to die. To comfort myself, I answered that he would live on in me and in others, including his grandchildren, as much as his grandparents were now living in him.

The second week in October, we moved him to a nursing home. A badly placed urinary catheter and constipation produced increasing discomfort. One night, after he screamed and begged for hours to be put out of his misery, I prevailed upon an on-call physician to send him to the emergency room at French hospital. There he was subjected to an excruciating treatment, which along with a shot of morphine, brought him some relief and sleep. I was horrified by witnessing the brutalization of a frail and defenseless old man.

Next day, back at the nursing home, he no longer wanted to open his eyes. He refused food and the Ensure he was offered through a straw. “I’m so sick, I’m so sick,” he said. He drew me close and told me that he knew it would be a great sacrifice for me, but he needed me to end his life. I asked him to repeat his wish to Jan. I wouldn’t proceed without conferring with her. He talked about how he was ready for death; how stories of punishment for suicide were devised to control people and capitalize on their fears; how his life had been good but now it was a burden both for him and for those he loved. I thought of the exchange in King Lear when despairing old Gloucester begs his son to kill him–“No further…a man may rot even here.” Then I remembered Edgar’s reply: “…men must endure/Their going hence even as their coming hither/ Ripeness is all.” I realized his ordeal was no less but no more painful than what I remembered of my son Joe’s coming into life in the Powell River Hospital in April 1971.

I talked to the hospice nurse who had come in on the case. She assured me that proper basic treatment could prevent the problems that had caused the agony. She mentioned that such requests from the dying were frequent, but generally only made once, as a kind of test. She predicted that Henry’s refusal to take food would be followed by a reduction in his intake of liquids. Dehydration would ease the shut down of his various systems and release the body’s own painkillers. It was all a natural process.

During the succeeding days, as his frame shrank to skin and bones, his face took on a healthy pink-orange glow, his brow smoothed, and he slept most of the time. I liked stroking his face, shoulders and arms. Occasionally he would repeat sayings over and over in German or English. To Lise, the lines by Heinrich Heine, “Anfangs wollt ich fast verzagen/ Und ich dacht’ ich trueg es nie/Hab’ ich’s doch getragen aber/Frag mich nur nicht wie.”(At first I wanted to despair and didn’t think that I could take it, but I did take it, just dont ask me how.) To me, “Kann ich mir das nicht ersparen?”(Can I not be spared of this?) To Jan, “Nature, art, children.” Later he would respond to my presence only with a tight grip of his hand. Later yet with a fine stroke of his fingers.

At 6:00 AM on October 31, a nurse at the home called and said that the end might be near. When I got there, his cheeks and lips were grayish white, his fingertips were blue and cold, he was staring blankly into space, and he made little gasps at ten second intervals without exhaling. I ran to the phone at the nurse’s station to call Lise and Jan, and then back to the room. As I entered, he took a gasp and I put my arm around his shoulder waiting for the next one. It didn’t come. I let him down onto the pillow. His hands were cold and stiff. I lowered his eyelids. Lise and Jan arrived. We sat with him. After a fifteen minutes, he was cold all over. I covered his face with the sheet.

Jan called the Neptune burial society to arrange for transport to their cremation facility in Santa Barbara. Then we started planning a memorial celebration. At eight o’clock there was a knock at the door. I opened it to discover a party going on outside. Demented residents were whooping and singing while staff members laughed as they performed their rounds. Dressed in an orange wig with painted tatoos on her face, a nurse entered with a breakfast tray for Henry’s roommate, Charles. She was followed by a man in a wide double breasted suit with a doughy expressionless face. I thought he was in costume. Lise asked if he was the nursing home administrator, and he said no, he was Neptune. Jan said, “You’re not dressed like Neptune.” Then it dawned on us why he was here. We packed away the cards and photos on the bulletin board and the clothes in the closet, went to the nurse’s station to sign some certificates, and left.


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