My father in law died a few weeks ago. It was not a surprise, as he had been failing steadily for years, really and acutely for the past months. I was angry, at first, that he steadfastly refused to talk about his state of health. As much as a week before he died, when someone came to visit at the nursing home where he spent his last two months, he would immediately say, “let’s all go out to dinner!” even though he had not eaten more than a few bites a day for weeks, and could barely stand, much less remain upright and free of stomach problems through an entire meal.
I have come to see our close proximity and ability to be with him frequently for short visits as a privilege, and am grateful for his inadvertent teachings. I know beyond a doubt that he lived his life as he believed he should, which meant ignoring the extent of his multiple illnesses and level of needed care. His yearning to be home and doing what he loved best, watching political news on MSNBC with his beloved third wife, and prowling in the night for sweets kept him ever focussed in that direction.
It didn’t matter that when he procured his cookies and milk that he more and more frequently fell, necessitating a visit from the tirelessly cheerful EMTs, and sometimes a swing by the emergency room. It was only when one of these escapades resulted in a broken neck that we intervened and insisted that despite his wishes, he could not return home. This required some finesse on my husband’s part in convincing him of this, because even though most of the time at the ER my father in law was on assignment in some foreign land in 1996, at the time of his formal assessment they deemed him competent to make his own decisions.
We watched the love story unfold between my father in law and his bride of not yet three years, as she struggled to balance how much care he needed with how much he would allow. She would rest easy running out to the store knowing an aide was with him, only to return to find that my father in law had dismissed the unwitting young woman.
Ultimately it was not ever a question of what was right, but what was possible, and what he and we could endure. He had started on dialysis only a year and a half earlier, too late for it to really help a lot, but he did this because although he had previously refused it, he now wanted to squeeze every possible minute with his new love.
When it became obvious to health care workers and to us that dialysis was no longer working, but only driving an increase in hospital visits, discomfort and deep unease, we were able to cease the treatment, thus giving him a week of greater clarity and presence to be with anyone who visited. This gift to all was followed by a week of more agitated time, and finally the day he took a bite of steak, (and a sip of milk), greeted his wife with “I love you,” looked his son square in the eye, and took his leave. His way, his timing, his departure.
I will continue to ponder the choices we are all afforded, but it was clear to me that the most I could do for him was remain a peaceful, loving presence, wishing him the best the world had to offer at that moment, and for all moments going forward. I can only hope it was enough.