This piece was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on December 6, 2000.
Memories of parents can haunt us at holiday time. As I watch the lights go up and prepare my own holiday, I recall memories that will remain in my heart. I remember the time my dad brushed my hair when I was six years old. I remember the look on his face when I climbed so eagerly out of the car as I departed for college.
I’ll always remember the cold green walls and the tiny stool I sat on as my dad and I waited in pre-op for the surgeon to remove his colon cancer. The plastic shower cap rested atop his high forehead, the one I inherited.
The cancer was successfully removed, but my dad was never the same. Two short years later he was dying. It was a new cancer that grew in his cervical spine. Given one month to live, without treatment, he opted for radiation.
After three weeks of that torture, pneumonia set in. He couldn’t swallow. He was weak and had to go to the oncology clinic in a wheelchair. The clinician who was to administer his radiation treatment instead sent him to the hospital.
Caring for a dying parent requires the ability to assimilate complex medical information that has, as its bottom line, the ultimate question: What is best for this man who helped give birth to me, raised me and made a lot of mistakes while he did his best.
I had no better compass to avoid mistakes than Dad did when he had my tiny life in his hands. In the beginning, and at the end, we all do the best we can.
During his last two years, Dad, a very proud and private man, suffered from impaired vision, a bad pain in his shoulder, itchy feet, weak legs and lot of other ailments that left him exhausted and frustrated. His outrage was understandable, but his acceptance of loss and adaptation to “assisted living” was admirable.
When the radiation people turned my dad over to the hospital people, we knew it was the end. My mother, sister and I were ready to suggest Dad enroll in the Medicare Hospice program. I stood at the end of his hospital bed with my mother on one side and his physician on the other. The doctor told him my father that he was terminally ill and it was time for hospice. Dad agreed and we all cried together, but inside.
My sister and I clocked countless hours on the road, driving to the little mountain town in Arizona to which our folks had retired twelve years earlier, when they were healthy. Our biggest concern then was if they remembered to turn on the burglar alarm before they left on a trip.
Now we were spending our days trying to raise Dad up high enough in his hospital bed so he could spit-up in a basin. Pneumonia isn’t pretty. Add a throat swollen from radiation treatments and you have one miserable human being, relying solely on the people he had always cared for, to care for him. Now it was our turn to care for him, in spite of our astonishment, in spite of our pain.
We filled prescriptions, emptied the suction machine and the throw-up basin, monitored the oxygen level, and made sure disposable gloves were on hand for toileting. We used a maneuver called the “bear hug” to lift him out of his wheelchair, we balanced him on his walker, fed him ice cream whenever he wanted it and poured a dry martini whenever he wanted it.
We stood on the cusp of a new millennium with a guy who was born in 1920 and had prepared to die at the dawn of a new century. So many of his fellows will follow. I hope they will have the courage to enter hospice when it is clear that the cure-at-all-cost modern medicine is no longer necessary. Dad had the courage to accept that his days were numbered. We took him home to die in peace.
Hospice care helps everyone through the process of dying. The knot it leaves in the throat is soon replaced with heaviness of heart. Ultimately, it leaves peace for those who remain behind and a safe way home for those who go before.
Kathleen Vallee Stein