Watching my Father Die

His room at the nursing home is maybe ten by 12 feet. An oxygen machine near his bed hisses and exhales as it makes a constant din and my dad lies in his bed with with his mouth open and his eyes shut.  The hospice nurse told me he can probably still hear and understand me, even if he doesn’t respond. The problem is I don’t know what to say.

You imagine what it’s like to be with a parent near their time of their death but the story you come up with is something they’d put in a movie. You have some emotional arguments. There’s some reflection on the life past. Some pondering life after death. But real death is not that kind of a drama.

My dad is 93 and he started to go downhill mentally about two years ago.  He got late-onset Alzheimer’s. He no longer recognized his wife. We moved him into a “memory care” nursing home where he would occasionally show signs of his old self but slowly lost the ability to stand. Then he couldn’t finish a sentence. I would come by to visit and — often as not — find him dead asleep in his chair, looking a lot like he does now.

When there’s no heart disease or cancer to kill you, you just slide down a gentle slope until you lose your faculties and are no longer able to swallow. That’s where dad is. He can’t swallow either food or water. I told the nurse that should mean he has just a few days to go. But she tells me she has seen people go on for weeks like this. Weeks? With no water? It doesn’t make sense but that’s life. Or death I  guess.

The nurse asks me how I am. I tell her my father’s death doesn’t bother me. What has bothered me is seeing him in such a helpless pathetic state that I no longer recognize the man I knew.  I hope to God something kills me before I get that far.

I visited him this morning and tried to talk to him. I tried to think of things to say, focusing on telling him he’s had a great life and it’s fine if he’s ready to go. In his eyes I saw no recognition that I was there. When I held his hand he didn’t squeeze mine.

Sometime soon he’ll die and I’ll try to remember the man he was, who held me when I was small. Maybe I’ll cry. Maybe from grief. Maybe from relief.




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