Our Final Days
July 16, 2012
Early on a Saturday morning in late June my stepfather, age eighty-seven and already weakening, suffered a stroke that rendered him unconscious. Inside a large hospital emergency room the only doctor on duty was too busy to look closely, so a few nurses and technicians strongly sedated him, stuck a tube down his throat and placed him on a machine that assisted breathing, performed some tests, declared him “unresponsive,” and several hours later, when a bed became available, wheeled him into the intensive care unit. A nurse there said the plan would be to lower sedation and remove assisted breathing in the morning and “see if he wakes up.”
As my mother and I discussed this eerie scenario in the waiting room, a shriek such as I’d never heard haunted the hall outside, and security officers lunged through the door, escorting a devastated young woman, whose hands covered her face, and distraught relatives. The guards asked everyone to clear the room and grant the family privacy. A few minutes later, in the hall, I asked a guard what had happened. “Her eight-year-old son just drowned,” he said.
That was the difference: one who hadn’t had a chance to live never would while my stepfather was leaving a world of experiences: high school, college, service during World War II, marriage, fatherhood, loss of his first wife, remarriage, success as an electrical contractor, thousands of rounds of golf on fine courses, tens of thousands of drinks, the first half of them pretty good, lots of friends, two grandchildren and four great grandchildren, finally getting sober at age eighty-three, and then living four of his best years.
Two days after being stricken, he hadn’t opened his eyes but could squeeze hands when spoken to. A hospice representative arranged to have him moved to a facility. As per my stepfather’s wishes, written years ago, no heroic measures would be undertaken. He would be kept comfortable. That’s all. The first night in the hospice he awakened and was sitting up in bed when I arrived. He gripped my hand and emotionally said, “I want to go home, Tom.” The following two days he periodically tried to get up, grabbed nurses’ wrists with his strong hands, and insisted he be taken home. Then he drifted off.
I removed his bed so a hospice bed could be placed in his bedroom, and he returned to a familiar place full of artifacts and paintings, some made by him, and less than a day later he peacefully passed away as my mother, his companion of fifty years, held his hand, and a niece and hospice worker provided support. .
Goodbyes are always difficult but less so after a long life well lived. It’s also comforting to learn that care for those in their final days has manifestly improved. Fifty years ago, when I was a kid visiting my elderly grandparents at a primitive senior citizen’s home in Kentucky, I saw an old man, naked and incoherent, tied to a bed in the hallway. He was yanking at the ropes, trying to free himself. I doubt he succeeded until his heart stopped.