Monday, November 30, 2009

When Mid-Life Brings End-of-Life Issues Closer to Home

Thanksgiving brought mixed blessings this year. After a whirlwind but wonderful week visiting with family and friends in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey, it ended at my father’s bedside in ICU. Twenty-four hours after a long, complicated multiple hernia surgery on Monday, he seemed amazingly well. But at midnight on Wednesday he was moved to ICU. Agitated, disoriented, and in considerable pain, the stress on his body was proving too much. Black Friday morning was exactly that as the doctors prepared us for the possibility that he would not make it.

As my brother, mom, and I read through Dad’s living will, we had to weigh the decision to put him on a ventilator to ease the strain on his heart with his wish to not be kept alive artificially if his condition was terminal. The fact is that there is no way to know yet if his condition is terminal. When my brother asked Mom if Dad had a strong will to live, she hesitated. But when he asked if he enjoyed his life, the answer was an unequivocal yes. So giving him a fighting chance seemed like the right thing to do.

A week ago he was a relatively healthy, though sedate, 79 year-old who loved his wife, his home, his children, grandchildren, and friends. He loved his books, crosswords, meals, movies, music, and memories. He walked (slowly) but faithfully every day, as he had since his first heart attack 23 years ago. He still has things to live for. We have to hope that he does live, and if he does, that he can still enjoy the things he loves. That is where it gets so complicated. Mom says she wants him back whole. How can we promise that? How can we not?

Last Thanksgiving we were all together. With my brother’s family, my family, and my mom all surrounding him, I’d never seen my dad happier. He was excited at the notion of doing it all over again this year. He had even carefully completed his Christmas shopping and wrapping in anticipation of celebrating that holiday early, on Black Friday, while we were all together. The last thing he said to me on the phone on Wednesday was how disappointed he was to not be with us. He told me we should unwrap the gifts, and enjoy them and take them home in our suitcases. Even in his deteriorating state, my proudly frugal dad couldn’t bear the thought of paying to ship!

We’re about to board the plane. The gifts are still stacked in his study. I hope when I fly back this weekend, he is there to chasten me for not taking them home on the plane. And if he is, then that next time, I will.

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