Negotiating Life's End: Part Three
(right: Mom and Dad, late '40s)
Dr. X promptly sent me a social worker who was willing and able to answer all of my questions about my father's present condition; the common courses end-stage Parkinson's takes; and, the options available for his care -- aggressive treatment; tube feeding with hydration; palliative care; and, in-home hospice services.
I left the hospital that evening feeling not just better informed but comforted knowing there were people who were educated, trained, skilled, and talented at helping families make the type of decisions we were struggling to make with integrity and compassion.
"This Man is Nowhere Near Death's Door"
I was awoken from a light and troubled sleep by a telephone call from my step-mother, who was now just as agitated with a physician as I had been the previous afternoon.
She spoke with urgency.
"That doctor you fought with," she said, "he sent a neurologist to your father's room at midnight. Some woman I'd never met before. I think I might have insulted her."
"Good for you," I responded, thinking it progress for Juanita to question authority.
"It's your doing," she said flatly.
I was uncharacteristically silent. I couldn't tell if she was expressing gratitude or blame.
"It's because you yelled at Dr. X. He wouldn't have sent that woman unless you'd done that."
I still couldn't tell. It didn't really matter. We were both doing the best we knew how.
I asked for the story of the new neurologist as I slid out of bed to avoid waking my husband.
Juanita was huffy. "She examined your dad for an hour and then said his medication was completely wrong. She prescribed him new medication and I don't know what right she has to do that."
"What did she say about his condition?"
I could hear Juanita take control of the conflicting emotions this doctor's diagnosis must have raised in her.
"That doctor said, 'this man is nowhere near death's door.'"
The Parent Trap -- Hey, Hey, Hey
My parents' divorce in 1961 coincided with Walt Disney's upbeat movie about marital collapse and child custody -- The Parent Trap. The brilliant Hayley Mills, squared into twins separated in infancy, divided like community property between the beautiful Maureen O'Hara and dashing Brian Keith upon their divorce, and re-united as teens to heroically reignite "their" parents' romance, was as far from my own experience as possible. Children aren't capable, really, of processing this particular complex set of emotions: relief that a violent father and physically fragile mother will no longer be scaring the wits out of their children; and, the aching loss a father leaves behind when he believes that divorce means removing from his life everyone associated with his marriage -- including his children.
In other words, at nine years old, I didn't know whether to be happy or sad; guilty or justified, in response to my Dad's sudden departure. But the idea of wilfully re-uniting this mismatched pair -- though perhaps some other child's Disney fantasy -- was not my own.
Nearly forty years later when my father, in his first semi-psychotic episode, left and later divorced his second wife, his second set of children abandoned him.
By the time my father lay in his hospital bed last week -- either "on the brink of" or "nowhere near" death -- the person with the absolute legal right to decide his fate was his wife of a mere five years duration. And the only "child" with any interest in stepping forward to help make that decision was me.