Three years ago today I visited my father in the hospital for the last time. He’d lived with the effects of a profound stroke for more than 15 years. My mother died in 2005 and that left me in charge of all his affairs, his health and ultimately, the end of his life.
He’d tumbled out of his wheelchair trying to do something he shouldn’t a few weeks before. My brothers had been out visiting and we were touring the Art Institute of Chicago together when a hospital representative reached me by cell phone. They wanted answers to a whole series of medical questions that seemed pretty deep for a basic medical checkup or even a short-term emergency visit. My dad was often taken to the emergency room by his caregiver or by ambulance over the years. I was used to getting those kinds of calls.
So this was different, and I finally asked what was going on. “Your father’s got a broken hip,” the woman told me. “We’re weighing whether he’s fit enough to handle surgery.”
When an elderly person breaks their hip, it’s never good news. Many times it’s the first in a series of debilitating health occurrence that lead to death. Sometimes it’s the surgery itself that is too stressful. Or the anesthesia and other effects lead to pneumonia. It just isn’t good news when old folks break their hip.
They were considering doing the surgery on him that day. But I was the official Power of Attorney for Health Care and no one had yet consulted me on those plans. I realized my father may have given some indication of his wishes, and certainly, I’d respect that. But I still needed to know more about the prospects for his health.
First things first
We weren’t able to zip straight out of the city that minute. We had to catch a train, for one thing. But ultimately I showed up at the hospital and by then, things had settled down a bit. The health professionals were running tests, including blood levels given his daily use of a blood thinner. I’d gone through the entire list of his medications over the phone earlier that day. It was a lengthy catalog. Stroke meds. Anti-seizure drugs. Anti-depressants. Blood thinners. On and on.
So my father was resting comfortably as possible once I got back out to the hospital to visit. We talked about the operation and he was firm about doing it. The doctors even told him about the long rehabilitation he was likely to need on the back end of surgery.
My father was a tough and determined man. His upbringing had been difficult given the loss of his mother to the effects of cancer treatment during the height of the Depression. He went to live with two spinster aunts and a tough old uncle. And from there, his life story unfolded in winding fashion.
And here he was, lying in bed with tubes sticking out his arms as I’d seen it so many times before. I was there for his multiple bypass surgery in the early 2000s. Went to bring him home after the stroke wiped out half his body in 2003. And took care of the man both directly and indirectly all the way to that afternoon in October of 2015.
Not looking good
Thus I was aware of how his overall affect came into play. He was weakened by the accident. They even had to put him in a sling to move him about on the bed. Things were not looking good.
But it still wasn’t my choice to tell him whether to quit all that or not. In previous years, during times of quiet conversation, my father confessed he’d be fine if he just fell asleep one night and never woke up. Living with the physical, mental and speech effects of a stroke is no bargain. Honestly, I’d arrived at the point where I’d be fine with his passing.
Sometimes I consider myself harsh in that respect. It makes me wonder if I lack compassion somehow. Was I being selfish in letting his prospects wander off in my own mind?
He went to surgery a few days later. It was successful. But within days his health collapsed with fluid on his lungs and on October 17, 2015, my father passed away in his hospital bed.
We’d been able to keep him living in his own home all that time. Following a series of rehab attempts following his stroke, he had been moved back home with my mother for a couple years. A live-in caregiver was hired. Then another. We made it work. It was tough at times, but we made it work.
And during the years of 2005 through 2013, I served as caregiver to my late wife. We made that work too.
Keep on keeping on
Through all that I found ways to keep on keeping on. Kept on running and riding. Kept working out to keep my sanity. Kept walking in the woods to birdwatch. Found ways to keep faith in life and hope even when things seemed hopeless.
In many ways, I owe the life I have to my father. It’s not a perfect life, because I’m not perfect, and neither was he. But he made many good decisions with me over the years and these countered some of the bad things that happened along the way.
But here’s the important part, and it’s not selfish. In the end, we all owe our own lives to ourselves. Which means that when we become fathers or stepfathers or mentors to other souls who depends on us, it is good to keep in mind that it is our own commitment to living that is the best example of all.
That’s why I let my father make his own decision about the expensive hip surgery performed by the hospital. He made the choice to keep on living.
In so many respects that’s the choice we all must make every day. It may not seem that dire at times, but it’s still true. And to those facing down the effects of depression or other emotional states that vex their existence, that decision is so close they can feel it in the breath they let out of their lungs.
Which is why, while running in cold weather yesterday morning, I noticed the steam being released from my lungs and mouth and said out loud, “I’m still alive.”
Because they say that the day your father or your mother dies the winds of life blow straight into your face. We no longer get to “draft” off their existence. We stand on our own making every choice on our own.
We owe all that to our fathers and mothers. But we also owe it to ourselves.