Hospice and Beyond

So . . . some of you more loyal listeners might remember previous blarticles concerning my wonderful father-in-law.  A man who has, over the last 26 years, become my best friend.  When I started this entry several weeks ago,  I sat beside him, his old body feverish. His breathing rhythmic . . . slow . . . tired . . . his light was dimming.  He was unable to talk to us.  Unable to share his stories.  Unable to care for himself at all.  He was finishing his life’s journey in my living room.  My kids had come in from out of town to help support my wife and I as we made this transition.  And, as is typically the case, all the relatives descended on my home as well.  For four days, we held vigil.  Each day expected to be the last.  But, he lingered.  Not in pain.  Hospice makes sure of that.  Each dawn brought new speculation about the end.  When . . . how . . . and comments about his strong heart.  And questions about whether we were doing the right thing in this.  And waiting.  And watching.  And making sure he got his morphine every few hours.  But there was no soothing tonic for my pain.  No escape from the certainty that my friend was lost.  I certainly found the time I had with all three of my kids and my wife soothing, supportive and helpful.  The hardest part was not dealing with Pop’s impending death.  It was dealing with the relatives who, after some significant absences, came to be involved in this process.  Too many personalities . . . too many opinions . . . too many egos . . . it certainly turned into the kind of event that Pop would have hated.  He didn’t like a fuss to be made over him.  And this . . . this was a big one.  Having been in control of him for such a long time (he lived with us, ate with us, was bathed by us, watched TV with us, shared stories with us, etc) letting go of the control was, admittedly, a bit hard.  I know in my heart that I knew what he wanted through every painful step in this process.  But others had to have their say, as part of their process of feeling involved and important.  And everyone wanted to be important.  

Pop breathed his last at 505 AM on February 16th.  About six hours after I began to write this entry.  My brother in law got up to pee and saw that he was breathing.  By the time he got back from the bathroom, he was not.  He was finally quiet and still.  We gathered as a family around him and, as is our custom, prayed a Chaplet of Mercy (a Catholic thing done on a rosary for those who are not familiar).  We are not a whack-o religious family but we do fall back on our traditions at our times of need and transition.  The unbelievers (we have a few atheists in the bunch) sat respectfully with us.  Pop would have been proud.  There were tears.  And kisses.  And hugs of his old body.  But he was not there anymore.  His cooling shell no longer held the spark.  It no longer held the laugh or the stories.  He was gone.

The process of setting the arrangements was an ordeal.  Having thought about this a hundred times over the last several serious illnesses he lived through, and having spoken with him about this, my wife and I had a good idea what he wanted.  We had to curb our tongues a few times as the relatives made their wishes and demands known.  In the end, his wake and his Mass would have pleased him.  He had a good turn out for a man his age . . . who’s friends and acquaintances are mostly dead or infirm.  And all who came spoke about his kind and gentle manner.  His friendly smile.  Having never driven, he was especially adept at using public transportation, so there were stories about how he could be seen in all areas of Philadelphia getting the best rolls . . . the best corned beef sandwich . . . the best deal on a box of Gas-X.  And every wet eye would affirm that his passing left us all a little empty.   For me, the best/worst part of the process was escorting his flag-draped casket from the church.  We had taken him so many places over the years.  I had made him a promise of taking care of him.  And with that final act, I was taking him to his final resting place.  The final trip.  I was so proud to have known him and prouder still to be able to carry his body from the church.  Already missing him terribly.

The process of watching an old friend die is painful.  I consider being a part of that for him an honor and a privilege. It allowed me to fulfill my promise to him that I would be there for him and help him every step of the way.  Now, two weeks later, his portrait sits on a table in the room in which he died.  I have one of those battery powered flameless candles “burning” next to it.  His apartment is emptied and all his belongings are now piled in that room waiting for the relatives to join us next weekend to go through it.  And I am sad.  And in my sadness, I can find in myself . . . how I think and how I feel and how I sound . . . vestiges of him and how he carried himself through the years . . . and for that, I am happy.  He goes forth through me.  As my oldest said before she flew back to California this week . . . “You are the Pop-Pop now”.  A big responsibility.  But one made easier by the example of my old and dearest friend.

–Dan Hartman, MD

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