Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The death of Peter Jennings last week and the news that Dana Reeves has lung cancer brought me back to my own father’s death from the disease a little over a year ago. Like Jennings, my dad had been a smoker, but quit years ago. And like Jennings, by the time he was diagnosed, it was too late for a cure: from diagnoses to death was a mere six months. A blink of an eye in retrospect, but agonizing and seemingly endless at the time.

It was a lot to deal with for a career soldier like my dad. It was hard for him to imagine a battle he’d lost before he’d even begun to fight it, and sitting around waiting for death was not his style. So he decided on a course of chemotherapy that may or may not have extended his life by a few weeks at most, but caused a good deal of pain itself in the process. Up to the very end, he insisted he’d be cured, even though his doctor had stressed the treatment was purely palliative. For my father, treatment, even when it was not working to slow the cancer, and caused a host of other ills, was about fighting the good fight, and became a stand-in for hope. And hope in the face of an aggressive, debilitating, and ultimately fatal disease is a real dilemma for the terminally ill and their loved ones.

Towards the end we entered the home hospice program, which I credit with allowing my dad to die a good death. He spent his last weeks at home surrounded by the people he loved. Caring for him was the hardest thing any of us had ever done, but his death taught us a lot about love and loss, and courage and pain—in other words, about life.

Which came in handy when, only a few short weeks after my dad’s passing last April, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. If my father’s quiet courage in the face of his disease had inspired us, it was nothing compared to my mother’s mettle dealing with hers. A little over a year later, and she’s a survivor, a hero to her kids and grandkids, with her whole life ahead of her.

My admiration for my parents has grown immeasurably in the last two years. I think back on my dad’s last months, when I moved in to take on the role of caregiver, and it’s not the bouts of bitterness and despair that stick with me, but the (sometimes very black) humor, the hope, and the humanity. And the sense that dying is a part of life, and not disconnected from it, and that it’s important to cherish every last minute of our lives together, which home hospice helped us to do. Instead of alienating and isolating us from one another, my dad’s death—as good and gentle a death as was possible—was as much a gift as his life had been.

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