A bullet through the skull is a quick way to end the life of a suffering animal but things aren’t as easy when it comes to old people. Not that I think we should kill old people, but after a week of watching my failing father-in-law endure many an indignity I wish there were a more graceful way to exit the world.
Last spring when my favorite goat was slowly wasting away and unable to fight a staph infection it didn’t take long to realize that not only did she suffer but she also endangered the herd. We played God. I didn’t like it, but when the sound of the gun reverberated across our property at least I could be certain the pain was over.
But pain returns again and again in our lives. I panicked when my husband called me from the Midwest.
“Are you ready for a bombshell?”
“No … not really.”
“I’ve convinced my parents to come live with us for a while. In the basement.”
I’d met these parents once. For three days. Five years ago. Now they were older and sicker. Cancer and hip replacements. Bouts of insanity possibly brought on by organs unable to process morphine for pain.
“Okay, I’m not letting your parents sleep in the basement,” I said, imagining them calling up the stairs for water and a crust of bread.
They now have our room and so far so good. We’re all getting along, but it’s so hard to watch people lose their autonomy. Joe is frail. He has cancer and back problems. He needs hearing aids that don’t really work. He has eyes that don’t really see. Yesterday he slipped out of his chair. I heard his wife telling him to get on his knees in hushed tones and wondered what was going on in their room but didn’t feel comfortable asking. Finally they asked for help. when my son and I entered the room Joe lay on his side.
“Are you okay, Grandpa?” my son asked.
“Oh, I’m fine. Could you do me a favor and help me up?”
We joked about the situation a little uneasily. Later I overheard him talking with my husband.
“I used to love reading. I used to love listening.”
My husband does many things for his father that neither of them would want me to talk about.
Once we went to have our auras read for fun. The woman we paid told me I was a drama queen and creative. No shock there. She told my rigid, military husband that his true calling was healing. I see it now as he kneels before his father to assure him that he’s no burden.
Joe expresses regrets. “No, I wasn’t a good father. I didn’t do shit.”
My husband’s reply is waved off impatiently.
Joe falls asleep every few minutes. His wife of sixty years has been his caretaker for the last ten. After breaking her hip she had to swallow her pride and ask for help. She reassures my husband that every time Joe closes his eyes he’s not dying. But he is. Maybe it’s the Midwest in them all but as a family they hang on. Joe lustily enjoys a piece of blueberry-lemon cheesecake or a salty joke. He has a mischievous smile and bright, soulful eyes in those moments but the moments abruptly come to an end. His jaw goes slack, his eyes go vacant.
My husband drove his parents eighteen hours from Illinois because he couldn’t think of anything else to do with them. Joe said the drive was the only bit of hope he’d had in years.
My husband hopes he can save his father somehow. He fills the calendar with appointments. He researches medical marijuana. He wants to make his father’s ride easier. He wants to prolong life. I think in the end he may only be able to heal that part of Joe that believes his life was a series of failures. “You’re actually a good son, aren’t you.” Joe says as if it surprises him.
Featured Image: Evangelist Matthew and the Angel by Rembrandt