Sunday, May 13, 2007

My father is leaving us, day by day

As I've written previously, my father is dying, and my mind is elsewhere, and very preoccupied and fragmented. I'm still very fatigued from my most recent trip to visit him--I really can't handle the elevation in New Mexico, not to speak of the emotion and stress of what is happening. So it goes.

Posting clips from published sources (with minimal personal commentary) keeps me busy and somewhat diverted, and I'm not really up to doing much better with the blog right now. (As if it matters).

I just drafted an obituary notice, with date of death to be filled in later, for my family to review, and am working on some of the funeral arrangements. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, as is his due. Business there is good (that is, very busy), what with Iraq and the passing of the "greatest generation," of which Dad is very much a part. What strange, painful tasks. How we cope with grief, including its anticipatory forms, through these quotidian activities. I've written about my Dad elsewhere, on this blog and elsewhere, but this feels very different in its finality.

And connecting this once proud, powerful man to what he has become in his final days, so frail, vulnerable, confused, often in his own world. Dementia reaches far beyond the individual patient.

We have taken turns with visits. (My brother, who lives relatively nearby, has been the stalwart; today is his birthday, a very sad one. My sister spent several nights sleeping in his room, to protect him from falls if he tried to get up.) Although Dad doesn't remember very much anymore, mostly he knows who we are, and usually he recognizes our voices. For that we are grateful. And for the opportunity to hold his hand, to stroke his feet and head, to tell him we love him. Such an inversion of forms, of parent and child.

A hospice team is working to keep him comfortable, but he is suffering, and watching that is a torture--for us, and for him. We talk daily. He has, in his way, asked us for permission to let go. We have given it, with varying degrees of tears, then and later. It will come soon. I think he knows, and is ready. The nurses are surprised he has held on this long.

How will the experience of this prolonged death vigil change me when I next teach bioethics? I'll be watching myself to find out. Maybe I'll learn something new about the elusive/illusory distance between supposedly objective intellectual analysis and the prism of subjective experience through which each of us perceives the world...Whether I can successfully communicate that to my twenty-something students remains to be seen.

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