This post first appeared in The Finger Lakes Times series, (New York) “DenimSpirit”:
My father was a small city, solo attorney who practiced the law for nearly sixty years in the same town his father practiced dentistry for his entire career. He outlived his wife, my mother, who died when she was eighty-three. Sometime after her death he renewed his health care proxy and made even more explicit his end-of-life wishes.
Late in his eighties he went to a young attorney and asked for help drafting a statement so clear and precise that none of his five children could be confused about his choices. Just shy of his ninety-third birthday his wishes were granted.
My dad fell one morning on his front porch when he went out to pick up the daily newspaper. A resident of a house for mentally disabled adults across the street saw him fall and raised cane until someone called an ambulance. The fall caused an acute subdural hematoma or hemorrhage that incapacitated him and would eventually bring about his death. It was the “eventually” that made his wishes so difficult to fulfill.
In my profession there is no escaping the presence of death. In addition to my own mother’s long and steady decline unto death, I have had the privilege of being present to families as their loved one is dying, and too many times to count, have held the hands of the dying and kissed the foreheads of the dead. The experience of my dad’s dying was different.
According to the very clear wishes when he was of sound mind, in the event he was no longer mentally aware and capable of feeding himself, and with no possibility of recovery, he wanted us to withhold food and water until he died. That kind of death can take up to three weeks, even more for some people. We starved my dad for ten days before the end came.
He was at home, and surrounded by his five children; and we were supported by hospice care. It was a good as it could be. He came in and out of consciousness though never fully coherent. We wet his lips but did not give him anything to drink, even though sometimes it seemed he was asking for it. The professionals assured us that he was not suffering pain as a result of withholding food and water, and he was given morphine regularly. Even so, it felt like we were starving our dad to death.
Fidelity and trust are not the easy feel-good words we often make them out to be.
Our father trusted us to carry out his wishes, no matter how emotionally painful it was for us. We remained faithful to his wishes because they were his wishes, even when we had questions about them. Among the five of his children there were differences of opinion and ethics and faith, but we kept faith with his values and wishes unto his death.
Both of my parents died at home with their children caring for them, supported by home health care and hospice teams. That seems to be the great storybook ending for many people these days, and something I suspect the health care funding system would like to encourage. When my turn comes, I will have made clear that I do not want to die at home. I want my family to be present, grieve, and care for one another rather than be absorbed and burdened by providing for the physical care and comfort of my dying body.
I mention it as something to think about, ahead of time. What we imagine may be best for us, may not be best for those we leave behind.