Losing a family member to death leaves a significant empty space for those left behind. The death of a parent summons feelings of vulnerability and a sense of one’s own mortality. Even when death is an end to suffering, there is a certain finality to it that brings sadness. However, even in the darkness of these times, there is plenty of humor that always accompanies the human comedy, and the recent death of my father is no exception.
I wrote last week about “the call” I received from the nursing home informing me that my father had passed away. The words spoken by the facility’s representative reminded me of other testimonies I have heard from people who have received “the call.” A couple of weeks before he died, my father had suffered from an infected lymph gland in his neck that was very inflamed and painful. He was on some very strong antibiotics that zapped what little energy he had left at age 94, but it appeared that he was getting better and was strong enough to get out of bed. His nurse told me that he had actually eaten dinner only an hour or so before he died. So the representative who called had the unpleasant task of giving me news that by no means was a surprise but was nevertheless not altogether expected either.
Herein lies the comedy. You have to wonder how nursing home personnel are trained to deliver such bad news to loved ones. In this case, the voice on the other end of the phone said, “Mr. ————? I was calling to let you know there’s been a change in your father’s condition,” to which I replied, “Okay.” And then she handed it to me: “He passed away this evening.” Now, at this point, I began asking the predictable questions about how he was found, how he died, what time it happened, etc. What I really wanted to say was, “Why yes, I would say that is a fairly significant change in his condition.” It would be hard to immediately come up with a better example of the understatement of the year.
My wife has told many people the story of “the call” she received about her mother’s death, which occurred while she was in a rehab center only a day or so after my wife had been with her. The nurse who called and delivered the message told my wife that her mother had “expired.” Really? Expired? I realize now that this is a technical term used in the geriatric healthcare industry, but I can’t imagine why you would use that term when talking to the daughter of the deceased. Expired? Can we renew her? Did we not put down a large enough deposit? It makes the deceased sound more like a library card or a driver’s license.
The truth is that there is no easy way to tell a person that someone they love has died. It’s bitter and heartbreaking. It is so precise and final. It defies couching or masking. There is no sufficient euphemism, although we certainly do our best with words like “passed” or “passed away” or “crossed over.” I don’t envy those who are charged with the duty of bearing the saddest news of all, but I can’t help but find the humor in delivery methods like these. Expired? Really?
On Saturday evening, I got the call. Actually, the call came in the form of three voice mails left on my cell phone because I was at a musical event and had my phone turned completely off. The calls and messages left were from the nursing home, where my father has spent that last five years of his life. Most of those years could not really be characterized as “living” in the sense that most of us use the word. Oddly enough, I just posted a few days ago about my sorrow in watching my dad’s recent, rapid decline.
Getting one voice mail from the nursing home is common; getting three back-to-back in a matter of a few minutes indicated something serious. I have been expecting this call for quite a long time. At times I have dreaded it, at others I have longed for it, which has been the case recently. Had the call been to inform me that, due to either illness or accident, my father had been taken to the hospital, it would certainly have anguished me. The last thing I wanted, any of us who knew him really wanted, was for him to go through the agony of multiple trips to the hospital for procedures to prolong a life not worth living anymore.
There is a certain finality to the words “Your father passed away this evening.” At the age of 94, the phrase is not unexpected, and as I have indicated in this case, it has quietly been hoped for by friends and family. He certainly was ready to go and had been for a few years. He frequently expressed his astonishment that he was still alive. “I never dreamed I’d live this long,” he said many times when we visited him. “I don’t know why the Lord is keeping me here.” Good question. I don’t know the answer. I can’t say for certain, but maybe he knows the answer . . . now.
I made the 5.5 hour round trip today to see my father, who resides in a nursing home in the town where I once lived. I moved him to that town after my mother died, so I could be closer to him. He started out in an assisted living facility, but then dementia and other problems made it necessary to admit him into a nursing home. He has been in a wheelchair for about 6-7 years. I say he resides in this facility because basically he is just existing, day after day, until such time that he will cease to exist. He has no quality of life; he cannot talk beyond a whisper, and it is almost impossible to understand a single word he attempts to say. Other than dementia and legs that no longer work, he is in relatively good health for someone who is 94. He takes no prescription medicine — only Tylenol. Occasionally he gets agitated, which is not surprising, and the nurses give him a sedative, which seems to work. Unfortunately, he has fallen a few times and has suffered lacerations bad enough for a trip to the ER for stitches. Oddly enough, he hasn’t broken a single bone, and hardly complains about pain at all — ever. He fought the staff tooth and nail (well, just nails, since he has no teeth anymore) when they removed his stitches last time, but I think that was from fear and confusion more than pain.
It is heartbreaking to see him linger in this state, and I told him today that I was sorry that he had to do so. I wish what is left of his life could end. I wish he could fall asleep forever. Anyone who has lived too long, or is close to someone who has, knows all too well that there are worse things than death. I will never wish for a long life — only a full one.