Sunday, February 21, 2010

Raging against the dying

Ed, the wonderful VNS Hospice nurse didn’t want to tell me, but on Tuesday when he’d visited my father he thought he wouldn’t last the night.  Dad had been slipping for the past 2 weeks and was looking very ragged: sleeping all the time, no appetite, being confused and foggy when we did wake him up, his life lacking all coherence, now confined to a room.

Actually a few square feet of a room: his side of the bed, and the view out the window - a cityscape, vaguely west, their breathtakingly sweeping Hudson river panorama having been given up, along with their nominal independence when my folks left their west side apartment last May for the comforts of assisted living.

So imagine Ed’s surprise when he came on Friday to find Dad sitting up, slurping his soup with gusto and loudly longing for a beer to accompany it.  “He’s a lot stronger today” he told me with amazement in his voice.  Much experienced in the ways of the dying, he’s mostly seen people trundle off in one direction only.

That’s when he confessed that when he’d told me on Tuesday “He’s not doing so well.” He’d meant REALLY not doing so well. But, as I’ve said before, Dad is most decidedly not going gentle into that good night; he is going kicking and screaming and crying and dragging both feet, even if he ends up a few toes shy of ten by the end. He is, indeed, burning and raving at close of day.

He is being kept alive not by machines or miracles of medicine or any other state-of-the-art artificial means.  He is being kept alive by his own hugely strong ego, his spirit, his body’s memory of life and liveliness.  He is weak as a kitten: this formerly 6 foot, now 5 foot 10 frame gaunt and skeletal, his hands appearing like huge knobby mitts stuck onto stick arms: my Dad the snowman. 

I had once again taken the boys to see to see Dad “one last time”, because I knew my Mother was missing them and needed to see her grandchildren, the future.  Knowing the end is near, she will barely leave my father’s side, although all she does is cry and cry and she truly needs all the distraction we can muster for her.

So even though I had said we were done with all that, last Saturday found the three of us trekking across town.  We walk in the door, Ethan peeks into the bedroom where Dad has taken up final residence, and, never one to mince words, announces: “Grandpa looks dead”, refusing to go into the room.

Jacob on the other hand, autistic obliviousness on his side, bounds into the bedroom, and after a cheery “Hi, Grandpa!” proceeds to take over grandpa’s dry erase white board to draw happy smiling green suns.  We had been using that board to communicate with my deaf father, back when he could still decode written words.

For the past 2 weeks, however, he has squinted, looked at the writing like its hieroglyphics and waggled the back of his hand at it in the universal gesture of “take that away, it’s not for me”, so we have given up on communication beyond smiles, hugs, and gentle strokes.

Jacob then settles into bed next to my father, not noticing that his grandpa has no idea who he is, and pats him on the back saying “close your eyes Grandpa, go to sleep Grandpa” and “feel better, Grandpa.”

I’m not sure what’s making me cry more, Ethan’s blunt truth, Jacob’s sweet, cheerful care or my own deep, deep sadness that my father often does not recognize me, is losing his connection to us who are still his earthly tether.

And then on Thursday, when he’s “up” again an old friend, Gloria, comes to visit.  I had sent out an “If you want to see him to say good-bye, come SOON” e-mail to their few remaining friends, and Gloria had answered the call. 

Dad just lit up when she came into the room, clearly recognizing her, and so delighted she’d come.  He was able to stay awake long enough for them to spend time together, and she also had a long wonderfully distracting visit with my Mom.

Gloria had been Dad’s agent when he was an advertising photographer, and also his girlfriend for a while, before my Mom.  After she left, Mom suggested: “This has cheered him up so much, maybe we should find all of Jim’s old lovers and get them to come visit.” 

Once again, in spite it all, Mom’s sense of humor is still intact.  When that goes I’ll start to really worry about her. 

And because I’ve quoted it here, and it’s wonderful and relevant for me right now, here’s that Dylan Thomas poem, written in 1940 as his father was going blind:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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