Those were the last words my father would ever say to me. They were appropriate; no sappy I love yous, no dramatics, no cries or pronouncements. Just a quiet word or two said it all, a quiet word and a strong look that illustrated love and friendship in tones reserved for a father to a son.
The next day we discovered the truth. No one had been hiding it from us; we had simply refused to confront it. The truth had managed to blast its way through our refusal to accept the harsh reality we faced. There would be no more victories–there never were any victories. When we thought we were moving toward recovery, all we had done was hold death at arm’s length.
We looked up and discovered that our arms were getting very tired. The truth was a cold, wet slap in the face–Dad was dying and had been since the moment Mom brought him to the hospital. Of that there was no longer any doubt. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not fix what was wrong with him. No amount of science, technology or medicine–nor even the collective wishes of a desperate family could do anything about it. God’s wish would not be denied.
Today, he has told us to make a decision we never thought we would have to confront.
Funny–for a family blindsided by the turn of events, we were very prepared to answer that question.
“You can keep your father on life support machines, and keep him alive for a little while.” Rau spoke to us with the crisp, automatic authority of someone who has had to do this too many times to too many families, too many mothers and brothers and sons and daughters. “Or you can take him off the machines and put it in God’s hands. There’s nothing we can do for him anymore. We’ve done everything we can. Your father is old. That one infection has turned into many very large infections, so many that it is impossible to fight them all.”
I looked around the empty room Rau had ushered us into; I wanted to vomit at the thought of getting this news, this horrible news, in such a cold and unforgiving place. Fuck him. Fuck the cancer and all the white cell counts, watching him try to put that bloody square block in a round hole. How appropriate. He was the square block, life was the round hole and we were all roundly fucked.
Emotions are on the raw edge now, and there are decisions to be made that no mere mortal should ever have to make. We sat in silence. What could we say? We all knew the answer, but no one had the courage to come forward and take such a huge and irreversible step. There was only Mom. And for a brief moment she summoned up enough courage from her depleted reservoir of strength and did one last favor for the man she loved.
“I know what your father told me when we spoke of these things over the years,” Mom said. “He used to tell me if he was ever in this situation, to end it. We both agreed to it, that no matter what, if one of us could not live without the aid of machines, to end it. He did not want to live like a vegetable, and he’s lived that way long enough. Dad enjoyed life too much to live it the way he’s living it now.”
“But you have a say in it, because you are his children.”
Right. When we talk of the choice of life or death, when we debate the horrible controversy swirling around the right to end a person’s life, it is talk with no essential substance. The path has already been decided by God or fate or luck or whatever you want to call the bastard thing that decides who dies. To disagree is to fight and make the inevitable harder and even more tortuous for those suffering.
To die or live? It is a topic that will forever rage in the theater of society. In the courtrooms and newspapers, in the textbooks and classrooms, our brightest men and women try to find a way to control a person’s right to die. But no matter how smart or wise we become, we will never be able to control a person’s fundamental right to die. It is one of those things you have to live through to understand. The answer is in the gut and heart of each individual–how can we write a general guideline for something as personal and precious as the conclusion of a life?
That’s the truth. It is not in the spoken word but in moments; it comes quickly and brutally in a flash, altering lives and opening eyes. When you see the truth of death, you know the truth and leave the talk and posturing for fools and simpletons.
We knew our father well enough to know that what Mom said was true. Though we had done a good job of hiding it from ourselves, the fact of his condition was painfully obvious. He had not eaten for three days. We could not remember the last time he had uttered a word above a whisper or moved his arms under his own power. We could see his appearance grow more withered and yellow every day, a sign that what the doctor had warned about was, indeed, coming true: liver failure was a death knell for Leukemia patients.
“I suppose the only alternative is to put him on machines and hope for a miracle cure,” I said. “But I think the hospital is out of miracles. At least for us.”
“Dad wouldn’t want to live this way,” Carole said. “Not living life in a bed, not able to talk of move around or do anything.”
“It really is no choice at all.”
All we had to do was go along. As had been the case throughout our lives, Dad decided for us. He just lets us think we have a say. For weeks, we had looked at him and saw his fighting spirit and remembered how he came to America from England, he and Mom, with two young daughters and a head full of dreams. We saw his common sense, and reminded each other about how it had guided us, his wisdom giving us the perspective we needed to be successful in life. We saw him and thought only of his strength and perseverance, how he had always been there for us and that nothing could ever take away the steel that held the family together. We saw him and talked about how something this bad could never happen to our family–and especially to him. We saw him and gained the strength to believe in miracles.
Then we looked up and saw that there was no hope left–no spark of life to fight for, to hold in the cup of our hand and bring to a flame. We looked up and saw that a dying man had taken our father’s place. And for the first time, we saw the tubes and machines and gizmos for what they really were: the violation of a proud man’s dignity. You trade dignity for passion when you think you can save a life. When you finally understand that your passion isn’t enough, the only thing left is to try to grab some dignity from the clutches of this horrible disease. We rallied to protect his dignity, so a man who had walked through life with head held high could die in the same dignified manner.
Reality in Cancer City is about death and dignity. That realization had come down on us with a vengeance, and we could do no more than stare out the window of his room and let the reality rain down. It’s a dull feeling, not at all like the drama you expect. Just a small, muted pain that somehow manages to work its way through the defense mechanisms a human body throws up to protect against traumatic experiences.
Just silence and dullness, and staring at nothing outside a fourth floor window. Through it all, no one said a word. Nothing. Each of us lost in our own thoughts and memories. I was a little boy again, working with my Dad in the garage–doing the thing I hated to do with him most of all and wishing like hell I could have, if just a little bit, enjoyed it once or twice. A little boy grown into a man filled with regret–I wish I wish I wish I wish.
I wish I had grown up faster so I could have learned his craft when I was mature enough to appreciate it. I thought of the swing we had made together, years ago, built good and solid to last through the years. “Now make sure you strengthen the wood at the bottom there, Brian, and for God’s sake don’t forget to run that cable through the rope.”
“I’ve got it Dad.”
But I did not have it. There was always something I missed, a part to the puzzle inadvertently left out. And he would be able to figure out what it was, go straight to the missing piece and clean up my mess. It was because Dad was always checking things over, always making sure a job was done or a decision made properly. It was because he was smart and wise, and it was just his nature to want everything done just so.
As it is my nature now. Except I am not smart and wise, and I still leave that piece out of the puzzle far too often. And now I find myself wishing to learn his craft, ready to learn it and make it mine. But the teacher is preparing to retire, and he won’t be giving lessons any more. I am on my own now, and the realization hits me hard as I look out of the window and remember the moments we worked together. It’s good that the last time is the best time. A time when everything went right and the sounds from the garage was not of a frustrated father yelling at his clumsy son but of two people laughing and helping with each other. The future was so bright in those days leading up to the house–now it seems like a dark horizon without a single guiding light. What the future could have been–he and I working side-by-side in the house, making it beautiful, helping Chris and I make it into a home of our own. The future–family, travel, golf–all the things planned and schemed for, all the things he spent a lifetime working washed away in an ocean of blood, tears and chemicals.
I looked up; the silence in the room had deepened, all of us thinking of things we should have done or things we should not have said in the heat of battles waged so many years gone by. I looked at Mom and thought that what I was going through was but a small part of the pain she must be feeling, and I pulled Carole and Sheila to one side.
“Let’s give Mom some time to herself right now. We’ll go down to the cafeteria and tell her to come down when she’s ready. Then we’ll take turns with Dad. Besides, we better make the necessary phone calls so Mom doesn’t have to worry about it.”
With that, we got up to leave, each putting a hand on Mom’s shoulder as she sat next to Dad. As I turned to leave, I noticed that it was as if we were afraid to tell him, or that he wasn’t allowed to know that we had sealed his fate. I thought that peculiarly wrong. I leaned up close to him, tears a torrent down my face, and told it to him simply:
“Dad, we are going to do what you want, not what we want.”
Then I walked out of the room. As we entered the cafeteria, I noticed a newborn being wheeled out and I couldn’t help but think how fucking ironic life could be.