The garden remains untended, unfed today. I had ten minutes this morning to walk around and look at the ripening vegetables, feeling less guilty as I saw that Mother Nature is taking care of my plants while I take care of other things. I missed the opinionated neighbor cat that enjoys hiding among the pepper plants; he never gets too close to me, but talks incessantly from a safe distance while I work. But not today.
Today, we work with Mother Nature on another project entirely: a good death for my father-in-law. At 80, beset by multiple serious health conditions, he feels ready to go. For months we have worked with the medical establishment, feeling increasingly dissatisfied as his questions: “What happens if I don’t take my meds?” “How do I check out?” fell on deaf ears as he was told how good he looked and how he could at least enjoy the sunshine and the birds.
For him, though, the sunshine and birds no longer hold any joy. Nor does the upcoming football season or anything else that he once looked forward to. His body has failed him, and he misses his wife. In his frustration, he often lashes out at us–we used the wrong coffee cup. We didn’t take the easiest route to the doctor’s. We didn’t re-use the tea bag.
We try not to take things personally, and sometimes we do better at that than others. In the meantime, we maneuver through the quagmire that is our medical system. We have agonized over every decision since March, when we discovered a life-threatening leg infection. What do we treat? What do we let go? If we stop his meds, does that cause suffering for him? How do we help him die with dignity, given that what he really wants, to go to sleep and not wake up, hasn’t happened on its own?
When the recent healthcare debate descended into nonsense about “death panels,” I learned how frightened we as a society are about end of life conversations.For months these questions remained unanswered. I’m glad the doctors work so hard to save lives–but there is a time to let go.
After conversations both with hospice and other palliative care personnel, we finally have our answers. He is dying, and perhaps quickly now. He has discontinued his meds and will never ever have to stick his finger anymore to check his blood sugar. He will no longer bleed and bruise from the belly where he gives himself his shots. Anything that remotely causes suffering is now removed from his life, and we focus entirely on his comfort.
Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Yet with modern medicine, with all its choices and options, maybe we need to rethink that notion. We do not want to see someone we love die in a hospital, or survive through artificial means. Maybe, keeping him home and surrounded by loved ones, he can go gentle into that good night–and it will be all right.
On another day, very soon, I will return to work in the garden, where plants grow, flourish, and sometimes die. I will chat with the cat and try again, probably to no avail, to pet it. I will harvest the vegetables and feed the family with them. I will plant new plants where others are now gone. But today, and for a little while longer, we learn a little more about that good night and how, perhaps, to help someone go gentle there.