Waiting to die

Have you ever waited for someone to die? I never have. I’m writing this beside my 88 year old father’s hospice bed in a hospital room in Illinois. The doctors have told us his systems are all in the process of shutting down, and there’s nothing more to be done without violating the health directive Mom and him hammered out some years ago.

My mother is here, along with my four siblings, a couple of in laws and a niece. He’s grogged out or asleep for most of the time, but occasionally cries out in a low exhaled moan.

This is good news — it means he’s probably lucid enough to converse a bit. Each of us takes our turn to sit next to him, stroke his warm forehead and hand, and tell him how much we love him. As we cycle through this routine we also thank him for whatever special thing he gave to us, what he taught us, what effect he had on our families — because it’s been a lot, and it’s something we seldom took the opportunity to do.

Those of us that needed to made the trip so we could spend a few minutes with our Dad while he was still lucid. Then around noon today the hospice nurse came in and initiated the process by which the last bits of medical intervention would be removed. That was six hours ago.

During that time not much has changed. He still cries out, still strings together a couple of words, still recognizes each of his kids when we sit next to him when he’s lucid for a couple of minutes.

In the mean time we listen to him softly breathing. And we talk — about Dad, about home remodeling, about funny memories from when we were growing up. We don’t see each other as a whole group very often. It’s probably been a couple of years (since the last niece/nephew wedding) that we were all physically together in one place.

None of what’s happening comes to any of us as a surprise. For the last 25 years Dad chose not to follow the recommended rehab activities that would have helped keep him on his feet after the stroke took away partial use of his leg. Even though he had minimal or no cognitive impairment, he decided he wasn’t going to do the work that could have kept him on his feet, and possibly staved off what’s happening right now. Maybe not though.

So here we all sit, waiting. Waiting for our dad to die. Why should it be this way? Even my Mom, his devoted wife of nearly 65 years, wonders this, mentioning to me in a quiet moment on the sofa in the room the fact that it seems somehow wrong that when it comes to end of life and suffering we treat our pets better than we treat people.

And now Dad’s talking with Cathy. She strokes his head, and says how much she loves him. He reaches up and touches her hand, and asks her how she’s doing, and how the kids are. He’s remembering the wedding of her daughter, and how nice she is, and how nice the wedding was. And then he nods off again.

I’ve never waited for someone to die before, and I hope I never have to go through this again. I wonder if it will be like this in 40 years? What do other people do?

I’m ending this now — this post that is. I don’t know how much longer this waiting will go. Is it wrong to wonder that? Confusing times, these. There has to be a better way.

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