My Father’s Dying Days Showed Me There’s No Such Thing As ‘Death With Dignity’

Hospice care was supposed to make it all easier — for him and for us. But that hardly helped when the man I loved was reduced to nothing.

My Father’s Dying Days Showed Me There’s No Such Thing As ‘Death With Dignity’

My father is dying and no one is trying to save him.

“You don’t even give IV fluids?” I ask the hospice nurse.

“No, he’s on his own journey now.”

But a person can’t travel without water, I think.

I try to be reassured by the nurse’s words even as I see my father grasp for the liquid-soaked sponge lollipop we place against his parched lips. The thimble of water remains pooled in his mouth. Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t just make minds weak; bodies, too, forget how to function.

I saw my father just ten days earlier. He had been placed in rehab after a fall. Damaged and diminished, he was still aware of who I was. He allowed me to steady him as he shuffled on a walk down the hall, to feed him, to talk to him as if he were a baby, in the hope I could make him understand me. But he could still love me back.

“Be careful,” he said when I was leaving. “Take care of yourself. Do you have money?”

paige-mehrer-hospice-spot1Seven days later, he has become feral, crawling on the floor, snapping at anyone who comes near him. As I enter the Kaplan Family Hospice House where he is to be tamed, I notice the wide hallways, the discrete seating areas with couches and throw pillows and shaded lamps, the fireplaces and fish tanks, the kitchen, and the children’s play area. A protective coating descends over my eyes. I find my father’s room, a junior suite with large bay windows and places for visitors to sit, to recline, to eat.

Something is missing though. It is the smell of food, specifically mass-produced food, the generic meat-and-salt aroma that permeates every institutional setting I have ever been in. The only people who ever eat here are the visitors, and a file of menus of nearby restaurants is available for those wanting to order in. I wonder if the kitchen is for show, like in a model home, until I see someone preparing a smoothie for herself or a maybe a loved one who can still swallow.

The sounds are different here too. No medicine carts, food trolleys, or the hesitant footsteps of the old or ill shuffling up or down hallways. It is so quiet that my sister and I can hear Irish folk songs coming from a distant room to which we later add the melodies of the Shabbat blessings.

Then my mask slips. In his bed, my father is bicycling his legs, flailing his arms, trying to rise, talking to himself, and making expressions that range from a smile to pain to terror. The nurse insists my father isn’t agitated, just restless; his muscles are commanding him to move after being in bed for so long. But I see patterns to my father’s movements. He is trying to build something, conduct an experiment, run a marathon, ski a double-black diamond, chop down a tree, build a fire, play the guitar – everything his body and brain spent a lifetime mastering. Dying is a violent wrenching from life. I struggle to return my mask to my face.paige-mehrer-hospice-spot2_jpeg

Haldol, Ativan and morphine – HAM sandwiches – bring my father, if not peace, at least stillness. Now it is easier for me to welcome the doctors, nurses aides and the chaplain, who come and chat for as long as we want them to; no life-saving measures intrude on empathy giving. My father’s wife, my sister, and I talk over my father’s bed about his funeral. We give the staff the contact information for Stanetksy’s Funeral Home. He is going to be cremated, I learn from his wife. My father no longer understands spoken language, but it still feels wrong to talk over him as if he were a benighted family pet. I lay my head next to his. IV fluids, I think, could keep him in this domesticated state for months. Would it be so wrong to continue to nestle against his warmth indefinitely?

My mask won’t stay put. I see the bluish-white tinge of my father’s feet, his sinking cheeks, his racing heart thumping in his thin chest, his slowing breaths. I put my mask back on and watch the hospice nurse clean my father’s teeth, trim his mustache, apply balm to his lips. When I say goodbye to my father he will still be beautiful, imbued with worth. It is possible for death to hide in plain sight, beneath the blankets, under the skin, behind the eyes. Failing bodies rarely allow us to just drift away.