The last four weekends, I've spent one of the weekend days driving 385 miles, north or south. Yesterday I drove home to the beach from north Georgia, where I spent the week with my father. He's not doing well. His health is deteriorating, sometimes it seems daily. He is, for the most part, quickly becoming unable to care for himself. My sister, who lives about 10 miles from him, and I are doing the best we can to make him as comfortable as possible. So the last three weeks I've been alternating between Jacksonville, FL and north GA. It's about 7 hours by car, the way I drive, which is at a pretty comfortable pace, not reckless but not lollygaggin, either. I do have to make quite a few stops, as I drink coffee and water the whole way. But that's not the point. The point is, I've been spending about 7 hours in the car each weekend, which allows a lot of time to think.
It gives me time to work on the plot lines for the WIP, which seems to be coming together, if I can ever find time to write out the ideas I've been jotting down while trying to keep the truck between the lines at 75 mph. The background conflict in the main character was eluding me, that deep-seeded motivation that drives his life choices. I managed to find it during the hours on the road. Hallelujah.
The other thing I think about during those hours is my dad. The man who raised me and taught me what it means to be a man is slowly fading away. He's 76 and he's led a good life, and he is a good man. He had a successful career, not without some bumps, but very successful overall. He had a wonderful marriage that lasted 47 years before the love of his life got sick and died, somewhat suddenly. If you can call 2 1/2 weeks in the hospital sudden. I do, because up until she went to see the doctor for what she thought was the flu, she seemed perfectly healthy. A very aggressive form of cancer took my mother in 2004, and it took a lot of my dad, as well.
My dad has been getting weaker and more frail over the last couple of years. Losing more hair, losing his musculature, just getting older. But since I went up there the first week of May, for my niece's college graduation, his health has deteriorated rapidly. He was driving his truck in May, getting around okay. Today he has to ride an electric scooter from the den to the kitchen. Standing up out of his chair, to step and turn and sit back down on the scooter, is a chore. He has to psyche himself up for it.
We don't know exactly what is wrong with him. There may be several things, but he has all the symptoms of congestive heart failure, including what I've been told are those symptoms that emerge pretty close to the end. We don't know what else might be wrong with him, because he hasn't been to a doctor in probably thirty years, with the exception of the eye doctor. Not a physical exam in that time, certainly. My mom couldn't get him to see a doctor, and she was the only one who could ever get him to do anything he didn't really want to do. In the last few weeks my sister and I have tried to get him to let us bring a doctor to the house to examine him. I found a doctor that actually makes house calls. Dad said no.
But he can give you a quick examination, cursory, nothing intrusive, and prescribe some things that will help you breathe easier, and help with the swelling.
No, I don't want a doctor.
When I tell people this, I get one of two reactions. One reaction is a shake of the head, maybe a tsking sound to go along with it, and, "Stubborn, huh? Doesn't think he needs a doctor."
Well, yes and no. Yes, he is stubborn, without a doubt. In fact, I get mine from him. For the first 25 or 30 years of my life, out stubborness made for some tense times, but I matured and he mellowed and we've been pretty close for the last 15 years or so. But as far as not thinking he needs a doctor, that's not the way he looks at it. He knows doctors can do things, maybe make him feel a little better, and possibly prolong his life.
There's the rub. He doesn't want to prolong his life. He's tired. He's lonely. His body is failing naturally, and he's ready to let it happen and move on to the next thing. He's a man of faith, believes in heaven. He believes he's going there. And he believes my mom is there waiting for him.
The other reaction I get is, "Can't you make him see a doctor?"
Uh, no. I can't. I've never been able to make my father do anything, and I learned enough long ago to quit trying. He has all of his mental faculties, and they seem to be working pretty well. The other day we were watching TV and a commercial for some local politician came on. I wasn't really paying attention, I was reading The Hot Kid, by Elmore Leonard. I heard my father say, not very loud, "That's the most ridiculous haircut I've ever seen." I looked at the TV and burst out laughing. It was a fuckin ridiculous haircut, almost a bowl cut with a part up one side, the politician looking like a caricature of a moron. I looked at dad and he was looking back at me, chuckling. "He's going for the pity vote," he said.
Yeah, he's paying attention and knows what time it is. He doesn't say much, never has and especially not now that he struggles to breath, but when he does speak he makes it count.
No, I can't make my father see a doctor. Honestly, I'm not inclined to make him. He's lived over three quarters of a century, he's dying, and he's ready to go. I don't want to lose him, but what right do I have to delay the journey he's ready to take? It's a hard question at first glance, but as I said, I've had time to think about it from every angle.
I don't have the right to say, "You can't choose to die a natural death. We must let the doctors do whatever they can do to prolong your life." No, he's earned the right to make his own choices here at the end.
All we can do is make him as comfortable as possible, and I believe we're doing that. He has a home care lady that comes to his house from 10-4 Monday through Friday. The weeks that I'm there, I'm with him in the mornings and in the evenings. Weeks that I'm not there, my sister goes over early until the lady gets there, then goes back over after dinner for a couple of hours. We get him what he needs, and I help him bathe, and I shave him and clip his toenails. We make sure he eats. He's as comfortable as he can be without the aid of modern medicine.
He has a Do Not Rescuscitate order, signed and hanging by a magnet on the side of the refrigerator. Legally, he's spelled it out. I've got the same thing written down for me. I can't blame him for wanting to be allowed to let nature take its course. If you believe in heaven, I guess you want to go there when it's your time. I can see it from that perspective.
That doesn't make it much easier, though, when I sit there with him at night and know he's struggling to get some oxygen. It's a helpless feeling. It's ironic, too, that one of my oldest and best friends has a respiratory therapy company and could get him hooked up with some oxygen if a doctor prescribed it. I mentioned it again last Thursday, and received The Look. I used to get that look all the time when I was a kid. It means, basically, "Don't push it, you're one step away from pissing me off." Even at his age, in his condition, he can give me The Look. So I dropped it and won't bring it up again.
I'm grateful for this time I'm spending with him. My company is gracious enough to let me work out of our Atlanta office on alternating weeks, which is a huge help to me and my family. It takes some of the strain off my sister when I'm up there. She has a busy household and when I'm up there she doesn't have to manage her schedule around going to his house twice a day. Most of all, though, I'm truly grateful that I can be there for him, after all the years of him being there for me. It's my chance to thank him for teaching me, through actions more than words, how to live like a man. And he's still teaching me now.