Friday, May 25, 2007

Live Like You Were Dying

It was a weekday before Memorial Day weekend when I received the call from my dad. "Your mother died this morning," my dad said, sounding obviously distraught.

I was having lunch with Richard Berger, the attorney who more or less trained me in the law practice, and Joel "Andy" Henderson, who would often stop by the office to talk and go out to lunch with us. "You go on home" Richard said, "I'll take care of the bill."

I rushed home as quickly as I could. Although both my parents were elderly -- my mother was 77 when she died -- her death from a heart attack still came as a shock.

When I got home, I discovered that my father was not able to take care of the mundane tasks that follow a loved one's passing. At that point, I went into lawyer mode. I made the calls to the funeral home to let them know that my mother was at the morgue. I called my siblings to let them know what had happened. I also went through the paperwork to let the various governmental agencies know that she had died.

After my mother's death, I felt it was necessary that someone move in the house to be with my dad. My father was 86 at that time, and while he was still very active and had a good mind, I felt that due to his age he needed someone there in case something went wrong. My other siblings all had families to take care of and, because I was still single and living in Oklahoma City, I seemed to be the natural choice.

The first night I moved in with my father, I had to rush him to the emergency room at midnight. He was having a problem with vomiting and diarrhea. When they finally examined him a couple hours later, they told me that they would need to admit him. The doctor who was on call informed me that due to his age and symptoms, they first suspected colon cancer.

The tests they ran confirmed the initial diagnosis and after having surgery to remove the tumor that had blocked his intestinal tract, they sent him to an oncologist. My dad started on his chemotherapy and the first round of treatment seemed to be successful. Eventually, the blood tests detected no cancer in his system. They continued to treat him for a few more sessions before releasing him from care.

It seemed he had beaten the cancer, but it was not to be. About six months later he started to feel another large lump in his stomach area. I took him back to the hospital to have it checked out. The tests confirmed that the cancer had returned and more aggressively this time. They tried to put him on a new form of chemotherapy that was designed to actually kill the cancer rather than just treat it, but it turned out that he was allergic to the medication (apparently, a large percentage of patients were also allergic to it).

Fortunately for me, my secretary was also a Home Health Aide. So I was able to arrange it that my law office would be moved into the house and she could work half the day for me and half the day taking care of my father.

The closer my father got to his death, the less he would eat and drink. When I tried to encourage him to do so, he would sometimes get upset with me. When the Medicare-funded nurses came by, they left a book that explained that this is a natural part of the dying process. It is also an insidious side effect of the cancer. You need the nourishment to fight the disease, but the cancer makes you not want to eat or drink.

They started my dad back on the regular chemotherapy, but it wasn't working. We had to wait until there was a diagnosis that the disease was terminal within a year before we would be entitled to Medicare-funded nurses to come by the house.

Once they came by and explained to my father and the family that there was no beating the cancer this time, he passed away very quickly. They brought by the morphine and some other medications, which I was supposed to administer. He had complained about pain a lot, and the pain medication that he had been taking up until then was no longer working so well.

Once he started on the morphine, he went to sleep and rarely woke up again. He died at home in his sleep at about 11:55pm on July 2, 2005. Perhaps it was somewhat fitting for a Marine veteran of the Guadalcanal campaign to die on Independence Day weekend. He was buried with his military honors with my brother, Norman, receiving the American flag from the Marine Honor Guard.

In a lot of ways, this week's Sunday Music reflects a song that sounds a lot like my own experience taking care of my father. The song talks about how the singer goes "Rocky Mountain climbing" after his friend's or dad's death while in his "early forties." After my dad died, that's what I did. I went to the Rocky Mountains and several other national parks in Colorado. "You earned it," my brother Kenny told me.

In honor of Memorial Day weekend, here is Tim McGraw's Live Like You Were Dying:

Have a happy Memorial Day weekend, everyone. Carpe diem.

1 comment:

P M Prescott said...

Wonderful words of love. WWII veterans did so much for this country during and after the war.