Friday, March 12, 2010

30 minutes in a life


My father is dying. He is 97, comfortable, not in distress nor in pain, slowly slipping away. It could be a matter of days or weeks or maybe even a few months. He is the-little-engine-that-could, known on the streets when he was growing up on the lower east side as 'tough Natie', aka the state college boxing champion -- fly weight division -- circa 1930. 

He lives in Puerto Rico where he has been for more than 60 years & where his wife, my mother, is buried near a scrawny tree in the Jewish part of the cemetery off Route 1, the road to Caguas.

He is well cared for at home, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by people who have known him & have cared about him for decades.

Over the past few years, I have flown to P.R. often to visit him, sometimes for weeks at a time, sometimes in emergencies, sometimes just to visit & to push him through the little park that fronts his condominium. During this period, I've had some very personal conversations with him; some about him, some about me, some about our strained relationship.

His decline in mental, as well as physical health, has been gradual but steady over the past two years. Through it all, he has dealt with it in a pretty realistic way. He is a doctor, after all, familiar with death, and says he is not afraid to embrace it when his time comes naturally.

I don't think he believes in an after life as such but sees it more as release of his life's electrical energy back into the universe. He's been quite dignified throughout this time.

The thoughts that cause me to write this are as follows: should I fly to Puerto Rico now & wait until the end comes or should I wait until I get that phone call announcing his passing, then fly down, help with the necessary arrangements, attend the ceremonies & return to Ridgefield, CT where I live. 

Is this issue about the 'show', about him or about me? 

I've never cared much about what other people think, i.e. the 'show'; "See?... his son has been here to see him every day... so nice.... to have been able to say good-bye." 

Since dad basically sleeps all day, is on oxygen constantly, can't move on his own even to feed himself, is easily confused, forgets the last sentence spoken to him and mumbles almost incoherently, it's hard to imagine that it would make much difference to him if I was with him on his last day.....or not.

That leaves me with me. How would I feel if I was down there on a 'death watch'. How would I feel if I got the phone call. I've been thinking about it for a while now.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Puerto Rico, visiting with my father, I went to his apartment at lunch time as this is the time he is most alert. Unable to feed himself, I volunteered to do it.

His eyes were closed & remained so as we moved him into a sitting position & I explained I had food for him. He mumbled something incomprehensible & I told him he would have to help me by opening his mouth, that the food was good & it would make him stronger. He nodded, eyes still closed. 

So I took a bit of food on a spoon and told him to open his mouth wide, into which I deposited what was on the spoon. I waited patiently as he chewed and swallowed. After a number of spoonfuls, I offered him water through a straw & he sucked it in (a good exercise). And so we proceeded this way for the better part of a half hour. When he signaled he had enough, I wiped his face, removed his bib & he nodded off.

After watching him sleep a bit, I kissed his forehead & left, returning to the hotel where I was staying. It was February 25th and I realized it was the same day that my mother had died 15 years previously. What more can I say?

I'm not sad. I'm convinced another visit with my father can't be better than what I've described. I'm content to just hold that memory  close...... and wait.... for that inevitable phone call.