a good death

my parents had me late in life. my mom was 38. my dad was 42. (not that this is “late” by today’s standards, i know.) a late-in-life baby isn’t the worst thing in the world. it isn’t even a bad thing, except that i’ve always felt a little like i’ve missed out on all the different versions of mom and dad that my siblings got to experience.

there were the moves i never went on.

the vacations i never experienced.

the young and carefree parents, who wore stylish things and took risks that i’d never witness.

the mom and dad i inherited were steady, a little tired, a little cynical and oh so content to lead fairly quiet lives. though, i suppose that’s what i needed. what i still need.

now that my parents are getting older, health problems have been slowly creeping up. i noticed that it took them a little longer to bounce back from getting sick. they moved a little slower, had less energy. they eliminated long distance trips and all but stopped traveling to see friends and family. with each small change, we adjusted. it wasn’t so bad. we understood.

this summer, like a large wave that suddenly breaks on the shore with a loud and furious turbulence, they both became very ill, very quickly and at the same time.

my mom’s lingering coughs and low oxygen levels culminated in a collapsed lung, a prolonged hospital stay and a diagnosis of an as-yet-unidentified autoimmune disease. she is now tethered to oxygen tanks and can’t (or won’t) leave the house.

at the same time, my dad developed severe pain and urinary retention. then an infection. they thought it was a standard uti, but it got worse and worse and worse, until he also ended up in the hospital, diagnosed with a prostate infection and maybe… we’ll see… prostate cancer.

(it’s not the worst of cancers, i know. but it is still cancer.)

my dad’s hospital stay was the worst, mostly because mom couldn’t be with him. family took turns staying with him, but it made him moody. he missed her. she missed him. they both worried about each other.

and, then there is the matter of pride. my dad is full of it. he hates to be helped. he hates to be idle. he hates to be told what to do. he is the same man i’ve always loved, but with an imperfect shell casing.

last night, my brother and i sat at the hospital with him. i saw how pain had changed him. he was testy, irritable and quite, quite miserable. every now and then, he’d crack a joke and i’d see a glimmer of my old dad, but mostly he just tried to tamp down the anger and frustration roiling inside of him.

at one point, my brother left and i sat with my dad. i tried to be quiet, which is hard for me, because i thought the silence would do us good. after a few minutes of nothing, my dad looked at me with his piercing hazel eyes and said, “you’re having a hard time with this, aren’t you? you’re not ready to deal with our mortality.”

well, of course not! who wants their parents to die? i need you! my kids need you! i haven’t had enough time!

this is what i wanted to say.

but, instead my eyes filled with tears and through a swollen throat i muttered, “let’s not do this right now.”

my dad persisted.

he did what he always does when he wants to make a point.

he told a story.

he told me about his dad, who died of a massive heart attack when my dad was only 16-years-old. it happened suddenly, just took the wind out of the room. there was nothing anyone could do. my dad talked about how prideful his dad was, how he’d once checked himself out of the hospital after having his appendix out against doctor’s orders because he couldn’t stand being confined to a bed. how being sick was unacceptable to his father.

shortly after his dad’s death, my dad’s grandmother said, “he died a good death.”

this infuriated my father, who felt – justly – robbed by the death of his father.

how could it be a good death when it hurt so terribly?

my dad looked at me again and said, “i understand now. my dad died without having to lose his dignity, without having to be a burden on someone else, without having to suffer. he did die a good death. would you deny me that same privilege?”

tears coursed down my cheeks.

i said, “maybe.” and, i meant maybe. i’m not as selfless as my father and i would rather have him in a wheelchair or a hospital bed than not at all.

but, i understood what he meant. in the {hopefully} far distant future, he doesn’t want to suffer. he doesn’t want to be in a nursing home, missing my mom, separated from his family. he doesn’t want to be confined or limited. and, if given the option with God, he would want a good death.

 i’m not okay with it. none of this.

i cried on the drive home merely because i was saddened that he was thinking about death. saddened because, in my furtive moments, i’d thought about it, too. this summer has forced us all to confront realities no one wanted to consider. and, it’s been hard. very hard. and terribly unfair.

i get caught up in unfairness sometimes.

this morning, i read, do not go gentle into that good night by dylan thomas. i couldn’t remember how it ended. that seemed very important to me – how it ended.

and there it was. how i felt, written out plainly.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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