Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Exactly what IS a "viable lifestyle?"

My father was many things, but "ordinary" wasn't one of them.

Skipping lightly over about 55 years, I want to talk about the last five. HIS last five.

Dad was diabetic. He was able to control it for a long time, but those last five years, it went from annoying and inconvenient, to murderous by way of slow torture.

The disease was affecting his eyesight, so his doctor recommended laser surgery. This surgery is effective 99% of the time. Dad was that 1% exception. Instead of clearing his vision, the surgery burst the blood vessels in his eyes and he became legally blind. Not blind as in, "in the dark;" he was blind as in " bright white light."

Then the disease affected his kidneys. One day I went to my parents' house and Dad showed me the shunt that had been put in his arm that day. He was laughing about it but I could tell he didn't think it was really funny. Three times a week, for the next year, Mom would drive him to the dialysis clinic for a four-hour wash.

After that year, his feet and legs started to deteriorate and Mom couldn't get him to the car by herself, so a MedVan picked him up and took him to the clinic, and brought him back home again.

His feet and legs got so bad, he could no longer support himself on them. He became at first chair-ridden, and then bedridden.

We watched his feet closely. He was diabetic. Diabetics have to watch their extremities.

And then one day Mom saw it. A tiny black spot on one of his toes. A quick call to his doctor, a quick office visit, and it was confirmed. Gangrene.

Gangrene spreads fast. As in, one day the spot was less than a quarter of an inch, and the next day, four toes were black.

A more thorough examination revealed that the gangrene had spread up his leg to his knee. He was going to lose his leg.

Mid-surgery, the doctor came out to the waiting room to talk to Mom. After cutting into the leg, they had discovered that the gangrene had spread well above the knee, and they were going to have to take the leg mid-thigh. Mom gave consent.

I wasn't there when Mom told Dad that his leg was gone mid-thigh. I was going to school every day and trying to teach, all the while thinking about my father having his leg sawed off like a cowboy in an old western, with whiskey being poured down his throat and five grizzly old cowpokes holding him down.

We brought Dad back home. Sometimes he was able to sit up in a wheelchair but mostly he was confined to his bed. It wasn't that he had only one leg now; it was that the rest of him was too weak to support him.

Every day after work, I went to their house, sat by Dad, and we watched Jeopardy while I combed his hair. He had always loved to have his hair combed. Even still, nobody could beat him at Jeopardy.

And then it happened again. A black spot on his toe. It spread. Another amputation above the knee.

Now Mom had to have help to get Dad into the wheelchair so the MedVan could take him to dialysis. On weekends or vacations, Hub and I did it. All the other days, dad's older sister and her husband came over and helped Mom. My two sisters and my brother lived too far away to come home regularly.

Those hours when Dad was in dialysis were the only free time my mother had for five years.

And then Dad had a stroke during dialysis and Mom would no longer use those hours as her free time for fear it would happen again and her not available to give permissions for things.

Dad got more and more vague; we knew he was "in there," but sometimes it was hard to coax him out to play.

He began to have mini-strokes. Sometimes, his memory was completely gone for weeks at a time and would return with a suddenness that blew us away every time. Sometimes, he was comatose for weeks, and then would wake abruptly, as though nothing had happened at all.

The last two years were the worst. Stroke after stroke, lapse after lapse. How much fun could his life be? He was blind, and he had no legs. Sometimes he couldn't even talk.

Ah, but when he could, he was still hilarious. He wanted a football for Christmas. He rejoiced that he would no longer get "any damn socks" as gifts. He told me I was too fat. Ouch.

He refused to let us park in a handicapped parking spot. Those spots were for people much worse off than he was.

"Dad, you're blind and you have no legs. There IS nobody worse off than you."

But he maintained that there were plenty of people worse off and the spots near the door should go to someone who needed them more.

Weeks, months, would go by, and there would be no response at all. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero.

The brainwaves on the machine by his hospital bed would show very little 'action.'

Sometimes, they would smooth out for a few minutes. But then they'd start up again.

We gave him up. The family would gather in the ICU waiting room every night, and wait.

Three times he came back from the 'dead.' I would walk into his room and he'd turn and say, "Why, there's Jane!" And he would ask for banana pudding, and I'd run to my car and race to the store and get some, and come back and feed it to him.

And then he'd have another stroke, and he'd be gone again.

And then he'd be back again. There was no regularity. He was definitely 'in there,' but he couldn't always get out. When he could, he was Dad. Funny, ornery Dad. When he couldn't, he was a blank page.

Finally, Dad had a series of strokes that he could no longer overcome by his sheer will power and inner strength. He had just turned 60 the day before.

I could talk about how he had so many things planned for his retirement, and got to do none of them.

I could talk about the workshop he built in the back of the garage, and how he never got to build anything in it.

I could talk about how he got a traffic ticket while driving home from work, and how the cop refused to believe that he was sick and actually accused him of being drunk. That was his last day at the GM plant. He was not able to go back, ever. Mom paid the ticket.

What I'd really like to talk about are the years before he was 55, but that is not the subject of this post.

The fact is, Dad was IN there, even when the machines by his bed said he was not. He came back, and he came back, and he came back some more. He was blind, and he had no legs, but he was still a person; he was still Dad. And he was in there.

Banana pudding. Socks. Footballs. Parking spots. He was IN THERE.

I still find it hard to believe, sometimes, that he's really gone.

But before he died a natural death, he was IN THERE. Even when logic said he was not.

If any death at that age could be called natural.

Mom was approached about pulling the plug on him many times. She even came close a few times. And then she'd come in the next day and he'd be Dad again, talking and making jokes.

I think sometimes about Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, and the incredible guilt he felt over pulling the plug on his own father, and then having the cure discovered the very next day.

I do not believe it is our place to make the decision as to when someone should die. That is God's prerogative, not ours.

I'm doing that Living Will thing this week. Maybe you all should, too. That way, someone else will not have to make that decision for us. We will have already made it, ourselves.
Posted by Mamacita (The REAL one) @ 12:46 AM | |


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