He was 87, yet my family is in shock. Partially because he seemed to be in “good health for an 87 year old”. Partially because he comes from genetic stock on both sides that lived into their 90’s. Partially because we are American, and we don’t do death, well.
But 87 years represents an amazing quantity of life, here in America. Especially for a man of African slave descent.
It is the QUALITY of his life that I will write about. Because as he died, the quality of his life was waning, and I imagine that he is relieved to be “out of all of this chaos”…from international issues with The Trump Fiasco, to personal issues in his own home.
I’ll write with a broad sweep, this time around. Within two days of my dad’s death, an audiobook of Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” jumped off a library shelf into my hands.
As I read, I deepen my understanding of the blessing of my father’s death.
He died at home. This is now true for less than 17% of our elders.
He was NOT resuscitated, and taken to a hospital ICU only to die after a week or two suffering, the way more than half of American elders die.
As I see him, he had all the things he ever said that he wanted to own in his life. A big screen T.V. Access to sports and movies 24/7. Computer skills that allowed him to cultivate “pen pals” as far away as Germany. He lived among His Own Creations: from his intricate wood carvings and his complex paper creations. They were all around him. Just what he said that he wanted. And as I see him, he had become isolated from family, friends had “dwindled” and he was in ongoing pain from his arthritis.
In Louise Hay’s world of making meaning of physical illness, arthritis represents “feeling unloved, criticism, resentment, bitterness. Feeling ‘not good enough’ “. That sound like it could have some relevance to my father’s last decade of living.
He was 87 and had worn out his knee replacements from 15 years earlier. I always imagined that the orthopedists involved must not have expected him– being a Black man with an average life expectancy of 72 years– to outlive the knee replacements. But he did. And after his gamma knife surgery (really radiation) treatments years ago for a benign tumor behind his eye, the doctors probably didn’t realize that he would live for years and years and YEARS with a “side effect” of the treatment being exacerbation of arthritis in his neck area, limiting him to about 30 degrees rotation at his neck. And I wonder if the other “side effect” of that treatment– loss of his sense of smell– ever really returned. We didn’t talk about it.
But we did talk about the fact that he did NOT want to go back into the Hell Hole of conventional medicine for another round of bionic support for his back, knees, and spine at this the last stage of his life. The “side effects” from previous knee and back surgeries had included urinary retention, pain, and severe constipation that didn’t feel “side-like” at all.
So I can say that after the shock of hearing that my dad had died, my next emotion was RELIEF. I feel that he dodged a bullet in our culture that is increasingly challenging. That is, how to die with GRACE in a medical culture that doesn’t know when to say “enough is enough” especially at life’s end.
May you rest in POWER, Daddy.