Guiding my hand
It seems almost apropos that I decided to start writing this post on Easter—a month after my father’s death. But unlike the lore which surrounds this holiday, I do not believe that my father is coming back—in any way, shape, or form. I also did not need to see his body in a casket to drive that reality home.
I knew most of my dad’s life was behind him after his first bout with congestive heart failure two years ago. With numerous trips and extended stays at hospital, as well as two stints in a nursing home for rehabilitation, I rightly predicted that 2011 would be his final year on earth. I prepared myself thusly so that I could avoid the rigmarole of the five stages of grief. However, when the recommendation to transfer him to hospice finally came, I was in a state of disbelief, then sorrow, as if this was a stinging slap that blindsided me. Visiting him in a near-somnolent state set a cauldron of emotions to boil. My once bad-ass dad was a mere shell; the sharp and pragmatic mind was reduced to a brain-damaged mass as his body slowly, but surely, shut down. The anger that always simmered beneath the surface erupted. Those fucking cigarettes.
Really, though, that is only a small part of that. He gave up smoking years ago, just not soon enough to mitigate the damage done. No. What really pissed me off, and still does, is that he ended his days without a shred of dignity or happiness. His illness took everything away that he enjoyed doing, and he spent the last month of his life in a nursing home as opposed to the house he worked hard all his life to earn. Then, he was transferred to a room with a beautiful view he could not see, much less appreciate, to slowly perish. We do not know what is going on inside the deteriorating minds of the dying. Is there suffering? I can say that the anguish of the living who must witness this slow death is extremely real. It is a sight that is permanently seared in my mind. Anger tends to be unproductive in these situations. That said, it did allow me to lose my ambivalence about euthanasia, an issue that left me on the fence since the media demonized Dr. Jack Kevorkian years ago. Of course, I didn’t act on it, even though intellectually, it seemed to be the right thing to do. But, I don’t have the courage, only the philosophical ethics to have wished that swift end to his ordeal. Anyone in their right mind can recognize it when it is laying there so helpless in front of them. Death is the only outcome, and those extra days the loved ones get to see the soon-to-be decedent technically alive are agonizing. What is so wrong in hastening the inevitable for the greater good? I feel safe to put this in writing. When I put voice to this question, it has been met with silence. It is such an uncomfortable subject. Who in this same situation can honestly say they did not consider that option, even if just briefly?
A week after he was transferred, we got the call that he exhibited six stages of imminent death. The science helps me where religion always fails. Because of that outlook, I can whistle past the bargaining stage of grief. There is no god to ease the constant restlessness from the feeling the ailing has of wanting to leap out of his own skin, called terminal agitation. We created drugs to take care of that. The labored breathing, called Cheyne-Stokes respiration, is a response to the body losing its ability to take in and process oxygen. The hyper-extension in the neck is due to muscle atrophy; the mottling of the skin happens when blood circulation decreases. I do not believe a deity created this body and its responses to it shutting down, nor can said deity take them away no matter how much I beg and plead.
A different flavor of anger emerged when I found out he would be prepared for viewing instead of being sent straight to the crematorium. He looked horrible up to the week before he died, and I felt it was a further indignity upon his body. Plus, the embalming process always struck me as needless and grotesque, besides being bad for the environment. I told myself this as I responded to seeing him in a casket. I already knew he was dead, but there he was. A blanket of sadness threatened to suffocate me as I tried to make sense of what I was feeling. Am I the only one who has tried to imagine what the people I love would look like as dressed-up corpses? Is that my idiosyncratic, macabre way of coping with death—to be crude, albeit scientific about it? Still, it is nothing like actually seeing it in the flesh, as it were.
At the end of the very long day, we were given opportunity to say our goodbyes. I didn’t mentally work out a script for that. Besides, I said goodbye to him the week before. Did I need this? Not necessarily, but in a way, it gave me an oddly poetic experience that I will always remember.
I cried helplessly, lamenting to my husband that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. My brother was the first to walk up to the casket. He placed his hand in there briefly and walked away. I never asked him, but I believe he gripped our father’s shoulder, and as I walked up there, I felt I should do the same. Perhaps if I did, the last vestiges of death’s mystery would be revealed to me. If I couldn’t overcome the “creepy” stigma of a dead body in the form of my own flesh and blood, then I would never get past it. I felt that my brother was brave for acting of his own volition, and felt shame in having to ask my husband to guide my hand there. I took pride in being able to accept the reality, ostensibly before the rest of my family did. Touching his body was what should be a perfunctory action in the grand scheme of things, a simple gesture. Still, I couldn’t do it alone, and my husband, who has seen more than his share of death while fighting a war, did not hesitate as he held my hand to move it to my father’s shoulder. It was so hard and unyielding. While it didn’t feel like that when he was alive, symbolically, it was precisely like that. My stoic, no-nonsense dad. All the fond memories I feared I wouldn’t be able to hold onto came back. Despite his tough exterior, he was a softy and revealed a goofy side that only his family was allowed to see. I could always count on him for sound advice, and he even offered that same shoulder for me to cry on when I lost a friend years ago. As his maladies ravaged his body, he lost much of what made him the rock that he was in his prime. In a way, he got it back.