Silent movies used to use a particular edit to denote finality: a circle that grew smaller and smaller until everything went to black. When Looney Tunes lampooned the technique, Porky Pig suddenly squeezed through the shrinking circle, to stutter “That’s all folks,” before popping back into Toon Town, the window closing behind him.
I’ve often thought of the end of life in those terms. The past few weeks,the circle has been closing.
With an underlying diagnosis of congestive heart failure, and the instinctive discipline of my Dad, it’s been hard to predict how the final years of his life might go. My Mom’s terminal lung cancer had a pretty known trajectory; although she was given weeks to live, she lived nearly four months, but either way – we knew it wouldn’t be long, and it wasn’t long.
Every day now gets a little tougher. Dad is growing weaker. He sleeps more, and sometimes is not strong enough to stand and walk. He is very short of breath even at rest, and eating and drinking is becoming more difficult. His heart rate is lower and becoming irregular, and his blood pressure is up. He is working hard just to breathe and talk.
So I wonder, perhaps for the first time: are we now in the final period? I won’t call it the home stretch because there’s nothing homey or relieving about it. I have been with two people when they died, and it was hard work for them, leaving this world, even with great comfort care.
A week ago, my brothers were worrying about Dad’s dignity as he left the ER with a catheter. One of them said it was “one more blow.”
Funny, as Dad has needed more personal care this week, dignity hasn’t felt like a big issue. Words from Tuesdays with Morrie came floating in to my head, so much so that I dug the book out this morning:
“Mitch, it’s funny,” he said. “I’m an independent person, so my inclination was to fight all of this — being helped from the car, having someone else dress me. I felt a little ashamed, because our culture tells us we should be ashamed if we can’t wipe our own behind. But then I figured, Forget what the culture says…. I am not going to be ashamed. What’s the big deal?“
“And you know what? The strangest thing.”…
“I began to enjoy my dependency. Now I enjoy when they turn me over on my side and rub cream on my behind so I don’t get sores. Or when they wipe my brow, or they massage my legs. I revel in it. I close my eyes and soak it up. And it seems very familiar to me.
It’s like going back to being a child again. Someone to bathe you. Someone to lift you. Someone to wipe you. We all know how to be a child. It’s inside all of us. For me, it’s just remembering how to enjoy it.”
Hundreds of times, my Dad has said to me, “Everyone needs a mother.” Everyone does.
I am hoping that I can do what mothers do in these final stages: make the boo boos feel better, and chase the nightmares away.