A friend and I talked last night about the themes of our lives, and he mentioned that a theme of my life seems to be taking care of the dying. First there was my mother (though I was not her principle caregiver, I did help when I could). Then there was my life mate/soul mate. And now there is my father. It seems as if I’ve been fighting with death for more years than I care to remember, but this final fight will be ending sometime in the not too distant future. And after his death, there will be no other — no other that I am responsible for, that is, except my own.
My father signed up for hospice yesterday. (He is strong enough and mentally alert enough that he was able to sign all the papers himself.) It seems like a big step, but the truth is he is no better or worse than he was the day before. Actually, that’s not true — he says he is doing worse, but to my eyes, he is doing better, thriving on the attention of nurses and home health care workers. I haven’t seen him so charming or jocular in years.
Hospice is not just for the actively dying, but also for those who will never get better, so just because he is now on hospice, it doesn’t necessarily mean he is close to death. I’ve talked to people whose parents were on hospice for five and even ten years. Although there is no way of knowing how long a person has, I don’t think my father is in any danger of dying soon. Getting older and tireder, yes. Dying? Not so much. He just doesn’t seem that much worse off than he was six months ago. He eats less than he did, but he drinks more Ensure. (I think he’s the one person in the world who actually likes the stuff.) So the calories add up to about the same.
This latest step is, strangely, more of an adjustment for me than it is for him. Even with my dysfunctional brother gone, we’ll never go back to the quiet days when I first got here to help him. There will be people coming and going, deliveries of drugs and other paraphernalia, reassessments and new schedules. And, of course, there will be visits from siblings who are suddenly frantic at what they think is the imminent death of our father.
I’ve gone through this so many times before, where I thought he was dying, and he proved me wrong, that I’ve learned not to make plans for when he’s gone. So, whatever the rest of the family thinks signing up for hospice means, I’m just taking things as they come.
Still, he is ninety-seven. One day his life will be finished, and so will this particular theme of mine. And then? I’ll just have to wait to find out what my next theme will be.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.