|Roy N. Buchanan, Canadian Air Force Veteran WWII|
My ninety year old father passed away on July 26, 2012 in his own home and it was my privilege to be with him as he departed. I have written personal tomes about my father over the years in therapy journals, more than one fourth step for those who know that process and on my blog in a lifelong attempt to reconcile loving such a difficult, brilliant and complicated person. I am the middle of three children born close together. We all grow up longing for our parents love and approval and have been rewarded or let down in our own ways, not always in equal measure. Our story from innocence to forgiveness, a journey fraught with obstacles, ended for my Dad with peace and grace.
I believe Dad both loved and loathed us as he vacillated between the extremes of his emotions over the course of his life. He was not articulate in the language of feeling so it fell in our individual courts to interpret his confounding behavior. A person in a fit of rage sucks the air out of a room destabilizing everyone. On the brink of insanity anything goes. Love does not trifle with rage. In a room filled with anger fear is a new best friend. When the fever of wrath cools love does not exactly come rushing back. Over time each of those unexpected incidents becomes another stone placed unwittingly on a wall. With parents, there is no divorce. Sure we can walk away and never look back, but I did not. Every time I made the decision to ignore my parents a gaping dark chasm opened before me devoid of the resolve I so desperately needed. Ignoring them simply lacked courage. Dad tested all of us by scattering just enough clues of the love we craved to keep us coming back for more. Had I not suspected his brilliance, played out in a highly successful career as an engineer, or seen evidence that he could suspend his anger and judgment in acts of kindness and generosity to his wife, friends and neighbors I might not have had such an unshakeable compulsion to spend a lifetime examining each of the stones on the wall between us in search of forgiveness for and from him. And I had my good moments with him too.
|Me and Dad fixing my truck|
In the last months of life Dad thanked me and told me he loved me and I believed him because those moments cut through stone like a laser. In the days he fell into delirium the marginal filters that had provided some air of decorum fell away completely. I experienced the full force of his hellish rage, judgment that would shrivel a hardened criminal and a lack of compassion so thorough that I compared it to a person with a conscience capable of slave trading. That might have been a tad harsh. After many difficult years of badgering him to stop moving heavy objects with double hernias, hiding the pick axes and sledge hammers he used to break up dirt clods and bashed his shins with and then getting up every two hours for months to stop him from making addled repairs to the house he told my brother to, “Get rid of that blonde woman”. I was the only caregiver with light colored hair and clearly a thorn in his side. There were times when I threw my hands up and walked away, wondering if I would be brought up on charges of elder abuse for leaving him bent over asleep on a hard chair with his legs crossed after he threatened to hit me, then being woken up hours later to a tirade for the pain it caused him. My Father was as complex as the monolithic feats of engineering he designed. Most days I could step outside of my feelings and care for him when he could no longer manage on his own. His medical problems involved complicated decisions and I listened to the advice of doctors, read his advance health care directive to interpret the directions for his care that he had drawn up with lawyers when he was still cognizant and I followed my heart when information was not forthcoming. I appealed to Hospice to insert a catheter but they insisted he merely suffered from gas, not the inability to pass urine and they left. I found someone who would do it because it was clearly inhumane not to and it turned out he had not been able to relieve himself for many days. I gave him morphine because Hospice advised me to, but I stopped because simply draining his bladder ended the moaning agony he was in. I did not know that the drugs they use, morphine for pain and haloperidol to calm people down also slow the respiratory system. Dad could have died from twisted intestines because he was too weak to undergo hernia surgery or from the runaway infection in his leg or from the contagious bacteria, clostridium difficile (CDF), in his intestines that caused a month of violent diarrhea, dehydration and massive weight loss, but in the end he simply stopped being able to breath. Complicated by dementia, fits of delirium and the self-abuse of a salmon swimming upstream to spawn his days were clearly numbered. I knew that, but it was no reason to give up on him. I rubbed his legs, moved him gently and carefully held him up so he could drink water. We hired many helpers over the years including one who spent lots of time on the couch channel changer in hand increasing her girth with the food my father purchased but could no longer eat. Finally we were fortunate enough to find a woman with the ability to care for difficult patients and another man who spent time with Dad in the weeks before his final decline. Larry J. Miller is a caregiver for the elderly with multiple layers of compassion and training and I mention his name because it is a recommendation. He gave our Father much peace and I thank him sincerely for the heartfelt conversations they had in the final weeks.
And Dad’s last moments were peaceful. In the end two loving women, myself and a kind caregiver each griped one of his hands. I asked him if he knew he was home and he blinked his eyes, the only way left for him to communicate. I asked if he knew his family loved him and a tear formed in the hollow eye socket of his emaciated face. The caregiver, who prefers to remain nameless, advised him to ask forgiveness so he would move on to heaven assuring him that Jesus loves him. He found the strength to squeeze our hands as we watched him take his last breath and leave this world. I felt the presence of his parents in the room and whether I made it up or not it gave me comfort to believe his soul was not alone.
Hospice nurses showed up shortly after Dad died and I was not kind to them because they recited phony platitudes probably from a handbook for the recently bereft. In some ways I’m just as obstinate as Dad and I said what he would have. I called Larry to let him know he would not need to come over and told him why. He showed up anyway and I am glad he did. Shortly after I lost my Dad forever he said exactly what I needed to hear. Exhausted from lack of sleep and the burden of so many decisions that had either spared or contributed to my father’s demise I could have easily walked into the dark woods of self-incrimination. He told me that the mark of a true caregiver is meeting a person’s wishes whether you believe in what you are doing or not. In the past I had chosen treatment by a traditional Samoan healer instead of a doctor of Western medicine and he knew that about me. He took a picture of us, after Dad was dressed in the suit he wore so often to the job he was so proud of, and then Larry handed the camera to me. Two black suited men pushed the gurney with my shrouded Dad out through the garage that he spent half his life tinkering in. I raised the camera to take one final picture as the van drove away. The lens flared as it tried to adjust between the intense sunshine on the driveway and the dark garage. This is Dad going into the light.
Before he was taken away I had my Mother, who suffers with advanced Alzheimer’s, hold his hand to say good-bye one last time. For a moment, she understood and her grief after sixty five years of marriage and unflagging love for her husband was palpable. Then she closed her eyes and when she opened them again a minute later she asked who the person on the bed was. We will not revisit Dad’s death with Mom in her present state of mind as she would experience the grief again and again as if for the first time. Mom has several loving caregivers now and we will keep her in her home as long as possible. Dad was a good provider and she will be well cared for. We will not be having a memorial service at this time, but will save Dad’s ashes until we can take a boat on the open ocean and scatter our parents together when the time comes. It was their wish and also the kindest thing for Mom. She is not able to comprehend or process condolences. If you knew my Dad, please wish him well and remember him fondly no matter what I have written. The part I have left out is that he was selflessly polite, charming and an asset and friend to the people he worked with. He was respected and accomplished in his long career as a pipeline engineer with Bechtel Corporation.
Dad, I wouldn’t have changed anything and I have no regrets even though I’m sure I could have done better and I apologize again for being such a crappy teenager. Please hold the door open for me, I’d love to see you again after I’ve had a few more adventures.