Sunday, October 7, 2007

They're onto our Game - March 2005

In the fall of 2000 I wrote an essay about my father’s final days. But like any piece of writing, it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. I have been haunted by all the things I didn’t say in it, all the truths I didn’t tell – not only to my readers but to myself. There is no hard drive in the world big enough to hold all the bits of truth about one family.

About two weeks before he died, my father, Ed, came down with pneumonia and was admitted to the hospital. The lung cancer was moving in swiftly after a six month reprieve. I drove from Maine to help my mother decide what to do. Having worked for a time as a hospice volunteer, I was firmly in the palliation camp: No life prolonging measures, no heroics, no pretending he was going to get better bullshit. Months before, when we had word the original cancer had spread beyond his lungs to his brain and liver, he took one round of chemo and hated what it did to him.

It was mid-July. His primary care physician was on vacation so, as I arrived at the hospital, a doctor we didn’t know was rounding on him. I stood at the foot of the bed while the doctor spoke to my father. What was that IV doing in his hand? It had better be morphine and not antibiotics.

Dad smiled and said politely, “Would you ask my daughter to come here? I’d like to have a word with her.”

The doctor made way for me by the bed and, as we exchanged places, he gave me a compassionate, knowing smile that said, “I realize this is a hard time for you.”

I leaned over Dad. He motioned me close so he could whisper in my ear, “I think they’re onto our game,” he said conspiratorially.

It was hard to keep from laughing out loud. Instantly I wished my real father was there, the one I had sat with and talked with just two weeks before with his swollen feet on my lap. I wanted to tell him how funny and absurd this situation was. How hard we would have laughed.

“Yes, but Dad,” I whispered so the doctor couldn’t overhear. “We’re smarter than they are.”

“Ho ho ho!” he chuckled, “but not by much!”

“Don’t worry. I can take care of this guy.” I said, looking up at the doctor who was ready to move on. He smiled his serious smile again.

Out in the hallway, I pinned the doc against the wall as politely as I could. “What’s with the IV?” I asked. Even though it was hot, I had dressed in a Talbot’s suit and was trying for a This-Is-A-Daughter-To-Be-Reckoned-With look.

“Well, we’re treating the pneumonia with antibiotics,” he said.

“We don’t want that!” I said firmly. “We want to keep him pain free but we don’t want to prolong his life unnecessarily. He doesn’t want that.” My mother stood beside me nodding. I could see that, even though she had been an Army nurse in World War II, she wasn’t up to any of this.

This doctor we didn’t know surprised us by saying, “Good. That’s the best way. But we had to do it because we never know what families want. Some want to us to take any measures to keep their loved one alive. We can’t do anything more for your father here. You should consider moving him to nursing care for the time he has left. I’ll call for the discharge planner to come by and I’ll have them remove the IV.”

He leaned against the wall to allow a gurney to go by and I realized for him this was like when I walk into my office in the morning, switch on my computer, and edit a story or design a brochure. This was his job and he was doing it. “Thank you very much,” I said, letting my shoulders sink a little. “This is a hard time for us.”

Three or four days after we placed Dad in the Katherine Luther Home in Clinton, New York, and after I had returned to Maine to tend to my family, my brother Brad called me. He lives near my parents and had been to visit Dad that night.

“I got him to eat a little bit of cantaloupe,” Brad said and I could hear the hope in his voice. It was a terrible thing.

I had picked up the phone in my husband’s upstairs office. Scott’s monitor had gone to the slide show screensaver and I watched random photos of our family life, both immediate and extended, pass before my eyes as Brad and I talked.

“That’s not going to help him, sweetie,” I said. “Every little piece of cantaloupe is only going to prolong this.”

“Well, he’s got to eat!” Brad said, despairingly.

I started to give him my Talbot suit answer just as a photo of Brad and my father moving a refrigerator from our family farm to Brad’s house appeared on the screen. It reflects the true measure of Stukey insanity: one of the occasional moments when my family puts the yokel into local.

The back end of my mother’s van is open. You can see Brad sitting in the back of the van holding the handle of a moving dolly with a full-size refrigerator perched on top of it. Dad is in the driver’s seat ready to drive Brad and the refrigerator the 200 yards across the way to my brother’s garage. I took the photo and remember how much they both heartily enjoyed the adventure even as I told them they were crazy. They had to cross the state highway, for God’s sake. “What if you drop it?” I remember shouting. “Oh hell,” my father called over his shoulder as he climbed in the van. “Quit worrying. This is nothing, kid.”

The image disappeared and was replaced by a shot of our toddler boys hugging each other at Pemaquid Beach. I closed my eyes and leaned back in Scott’s chair. “Oh Brad, honey, do what you’ve got to do.”

Heidi Shott Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved.