Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions
His chin lies on his chest. Dad’s chin, just stuck there on his chest! Helpless, head bowed, chin and chest inseparable as if both were made of Velcro. A vegetative state would be one thing, but Dad looked anything but calm.
“This is good.” Mom whispers. She’s looking at me eagerly, studying and noting every revelatory twitch of my face. She’s been jaded, accustomed to Dad in the late stages, and she wants to be vicariously horrified all over again. “I’m telling you Michael, compared to a week ago…he wouldn’t even sit. He was bouncing off the walls. I don’t know how he stayed awake, with all the meds they were giving him.”
“Hi Dad!” I try to be happy. Try to hide my fear at what lies before me. “How’s it going?”
“It’s a good thing.” Mom whispers. “He’s finally sleeping.”
He’s so skinny. I see veins drug addicts would covet sticking out of his legs, climbing up his arms. His hair is shaved, a row of stitches above each ear marking where the emergency (and ultimately unsuccessful) brain surgery took place. His face is likewise shaved, and I consider my Dad anew, study the contours of his face, consider the handsomeness in his bone structure. He just looks so fucking helpless. I want to run out of the room and cry.
“Steve.” Mom leans in, nose to nose, rubs Dad’s shoulder. “Do you know whose here?”
“Hmm?” It’s a babyish noise, a high-pitched grunt. It breaks my heart. His eyelids flutter, and for a moment I think he will succeed. But the meds win. His eyes close and his body slumps as he gives into the Seroquel and morphine.
“Michael’s here, Daddy.” Mom rubs his shoulder again. “You know? Your son? He’s come from Germany.”
“Yeah, Dad,” I parrot, “I’ve come all the way just to see you.”
His hand slowly rises to his scalp, where he rubs it softly in what looks like a gesture of pain. Another babyish sound emits from his mouth. I notice his lips hardly have the strength to lift. His chin never leaves his chest.
I look around the room, eyes blurry, searching for exits. This is too much. My Dad’s not supposed to look like this, not supposed to sound like this. I want to flee, go into the parking lot and, I don’t know, sob. Yet I can’t. This is the way Life must pass through to go forward. No way around it.
The rest of the Veteran’s home comes into focus as I force the tears back in. It is not a pretty sight. Emaciated old folks are strapped in chairs, heads flung back or hung forward in various positions of stupor. Are they someone else’s Dad? Mom? I shake my head, remind myself that none of these poor people are anything close to what they truly are. My Dad certainly shouldn’t be remembered for what he is now: a brain-dead, slumped and dying man with his chin forever fixed to his chest.
Yet these nurses only know “Steve” as what he’s reduced to now.
“You gonna help me build the puzzle, Les?” Her voice is kindergarten-teacher, all condescension and controlling. She doesn’t look a day over 16, but I assume she’s 20, her midget-proportioned body stuffed inside maroon scrubs. She talks loud. “I know you can be nice, Les, you just don’t like to show it.”
Les shakes in his wheelchair (an autonomic twitch?). His face is fixed in a gesture of what looks like extreme pain—as if he can’t move from it. Skin wax-like, his face looks to be melting off, one eye completely milked-over with pus leaking from his blood-shot other one.
“Whose gonna help me build the puzzle then, Les?” She speaks to the entire room (though her voice level hasn’t changed). No one responds.
“Oh, I’ll help you, Madison.” Another nurse strolls by, in different colored scrubs but with the same, sing-songy attitude. She plops in a chair, elbows propping up her chin, and nudges the old lady in the chair beside her. “What do you say, Grace, you want to help me with this puzzle? I’m not very good, so I’ll need your help.”
Grace “says” nothing. A strange sound–something fartish–emits from her lips as she contorts her face like she’s blowing an invisible trumpet. Then, to counterpoint this sound, she leans forward and mumbles some gibberish, her eyes malevolent. Finally, she leans back, arms folded on chest, and sticks out her tongue. Without any dentures in, she truly looks like a witch.
“Well, okay, Grace. If you don’t want to help, you don’t have to.”
The positivity never leaves the nurses’ voice. Apparently the entire staff—and there is quite a few, their individuality revealed through choice of scrubs and tennis shoes—has decided to counter all the suffocating misery and immanent death by a positive attitude. A really, really positive attitude.
It’s fucking annoying.
Dad is wasting away over here, suffering needlessly—can’t they respect that? Take that attitude back to where it belongs, to childhood classrooms, to places where life grows, where life triumphs, not where it ultimately surrenders.
Dad’s arms hang lifelessly in the recliner. I watch with renewed fascination, observe the ways in which his mind no longer functions but coasts on some malfunctioning autopilot, watch as his fingers grasp for a non-existent lever to control the footrests.
“You comfortable, Steve?” Mom leans forward at the slightest movement.
Dad tries to lift his lips, a pathetic, heart-wrenching sound escapes. It resembles a weak “yes”.
The same sound. It makes me want to get on my knees, hug Dad tight, whisper in his ear my gratitude, how wonderful a father he was. Sure, we had our differences, our relationship couldn’t be accurately defined as anything “close”, but I never doubted his love. This was my Dad, my Dad, so why couldn’t he lift his chin and talk like a regular human being?
“I’m glad that you’re feeling more comfortable, honey.” Mom’s eyes well, and she rubs his shoulder again. Her voice trembles. “It’s nice to see you more relaxed and comfortable.”
Dad reaches out a hand, clasps Mom’s awaiting one. Little more than a mumble, it’s still clear.
“I love you, too, Steve.”
I don’t know what’s harder to watch—Dad, slumped and helpless in his recliner or Mom, desperate to find signs of life and recognition in places where it simply no longer exists. I see it in her eyes, the way she bends down, nudges her eyes in Dad’s limited field of vision, and tries to force recognition from him. Though she acts upset when Dad rouses from his limited sleep at the mere sound of her voice, I can tell it makes her happy. Why wouldn’t it? This is her life companion being taken from her.
Then there’s Dad. I consider his face again, how friendly it looks, how babyish in some ways. His eyebrows scrunched up in what looks like pain and surprise. I think of all the things he’s done for me. The college education, for starters, the very thing which opened up my mind and, later, my opportunities, the gift that keeps on giving. I’d taken the tuition money as if it was my birth right. There were more heart-felt gestures, though: the Christmas he bought me a guitar. I didn’t get presents from anybody else that year—in a word, I was fucking up that year, doing lots of drugs and not a lot of work, depression my excuse for all my mistakes—and the guitar was unexpected. I noticed you playing Dave’s a lot, and I think you’re really good. I think you should have your own. That was Dad: gentle, ungrudging.
Sure, I knew Dad was a human being—it’s part of the trauma of growing up, realizing your parents are only human like everyone else, that Mom and Dad are also only doing their best to survive and make it through—and I knew that there were reasons for our estranged relationship. But, seeing him in this state, it seemed grossly inappropriate to remember anything but the good.
Dad, like the rest of us, had his shortcomings. He never processed the trauma of his childhood—and, gathering anecdotal evidence from a weird family history, it seems like it may have been much—and has suffered as a result. Yet he didn’t continue the cycle of abuse. He never hit me. Not even when I begged for it, when I arguably might have deserved it during my woe-is-me 20s, when I simultaneously lashed out at the world and demanded it leave me alone.
Sunlight shines outside, an odd reminder that life goes on. It does? God, my Dad is the best reminder of that—his broken brain, still trying to riddle thing together, his body twitching and squirming, willing itself forward, wanting up and out of the chair he’s strapped to. Narratives are far too complex, but you can see his mind trying to make sense of the world. It is painful, and terrifying, to watch. He twitches awake, his fingers rubbing at the knitted blanket in his lap. A baby differentiating where it ends and the environment begins. I watch Dad’s mind struggle, see him twitch back asleep, realize he hasn’t riddled up from down, if he’s in a chair as opposed to a bed.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
I try the tools given to me to deal with “life on life’s terms”. This latest of life’s terms makes me question my tools’ limits. No one should go out like this. What was the point of stringing life out like this?
Anger soars from my gut, a more comfortable emotion to process than this dull, dreary sadness. What’s wrong with this picture? A veteran’s home, filled with broken war heroes, all sentenced to die slowly without even the dignity to chew their food. Yet we keep pumping their terminally ill, brain-dead bodies full of nutritious gruel. Prepping them for another day propped up in a chair and on pain-meds to stare dull-eyed and slack-jawed out the window at the concrete courtyard.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
What’s wrong with the picture? It’s cruelty, plain and simple. Cruelty in the guise of help. In her old age, my beloved dachshund Gretchen’s crippled and cancer-filled body was no longer capable of supporting her weight. When the sparkle and zest in her eyes leaked away, when her tail quit wagging as she pulled her body to where it needed to go, we hesitated sure, but ultimately decided it would be best for Gretchen if we put her to sleep. There was no quality life. Suffering was all that life held for her.
The courage to change the things I can…
We treat animals better than our fellow man. Seeing the Alzheimer’s unit of the Veteran’s home, I couldn’t help but ponder the question. Maybe it was distraction from my grief, from my helplessness, but the question couldn’t be avoided. What was the point of all this suffering? I couldn’t find the counter-argument. Labels already poisoned their arguments, and I didn’t want to use them: “assisted suicide”; “euthanasia”. From my understanding, the reluctance for a medical push towards a death with dignity was the argument of God-playing. We’d long since passed that point! We played God with every other medical achievement. Left to his own devices, my Dad would’ve wandered out of his chair, followed the poor-guidance of his broken auto-pilot and ultimately would’ve crashed and fallen on the floor (as he’d done a few times already). Without the emergency brain surgery, my Dad would have passed three weeks earlier.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
“Oh, are you Steven’s son?” She, too, is young. She, too, has a super positive attitude. A nylon headband holds back her hair, making her seem even younger.
Mom and I have moved to a solitary couch in a quieter wing. We want to let Dad get as much sleep as possible after last week. Distracted, I hold out my hand, greet the friendly nurse. I can’t help but notice the contortion of sorrow and sympathy on her face.
“I just love your Dad. He’s so funny. I still remember the day I fell in love with him.” She blinks her eyes, clasps her fingers together by her shoulders in an overstated show of infatuation. “I was outside with him in his wheelchair and he asked me, ‘what’s your name?’ and I said, ‘Emily’. And then he said to me, ‘I like you, Emily.’ It was so adorable.”
For some reason, I’m very, very comforted by this knowledge. The Steve that this nurse Emily knows is somehow close to the image I would have remembered.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can…
I’d imagined it differently.
Magical thinking dies hard, and I, perhaps arrogantly, imagined my Dad waiting for me, his third and youngest son, to arrive from Germany before he passed gently into that good night. I’d imagined recognition, a tear-filled goodbye as we shared a Hallmark moment, declaring our love and admiration, our regrets for all our shortcomings. I would rub his chest, comfort him, insist it was all right that he go back to All That Is. That he’d done a marvelous job, that it was okay to bow out. And then, magically, mystically, and ultimately comforting, Dad would breathe his last, leaving Mom and me both breathless at the macabre beauty of it all.
Life, as it so often does, played out differently.
The beeps of sensors play in the background, another young nurse rushing out of the cafeteria to see if, this time, it actually means anything. It doesn’t. The nurse—buff and young, exhaustion already creeping in on his features—props Les upright and clicks a button on his lap sensor. Dad sits several recliners over, one of several patients slack-jawed and medicated to comfort. Mom is kneeling, kneading his shoulder, looking up in his eyes and desperately asking if he knows who she is.
It’s my last visit. I fly back to Germany in a few hours. Debatably, I will never see Dad again, but certainly not on this earth. He doesn’t even know I’m there.
“Ready?” Mom whispers, tears in her eyes. She gets her voice under control. “Dave and I agreed it’s better if you just say ‘see you later’.”
“See you later, Dad.” My voice is already giving out. Words become hard to form, my Dad’s slumped-over form growing blurry. “I love you. Thank you for everything. You were a great Dad, Dad. I love you.”
It wasn’t at all how imagined it. Far from it.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.