Tuesday, October 10, 2006
It had been several decades since I closed down a bar. But two years ago, in a tile-floored dining room a few kilometers from the Tecate beer brewery in Baja California, I became so engrossed in conversation with a wise stranger I failed to notice how desperately the staff wanted us gone.
While I listened raptly, Fran Prolman, an education consultant from Annandale whom I'd just met, gave me a gift that would change my life.
"It is an honor and a privilege to help a parent die," she said simply.
Those dozen words would become my road map and my mantra in the coming months. (Live Discussion: Cope With a Dying Parent)
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
In an extravagant act of physical and spiritual renewal, I had gone to a Mexican spa called Rancho La Puerta to try to prepare emotionally and strategically for my father's imminent death. Franny was there recovering from the recent loss of her mother.
Two weeks earlier, with his aged heart barely pumping, I had driven Aron Groer to the emergency room and listened numbly as the doctors said he'd die within the hour without a pacemaker. After briefing my brother in Denver by phone, we agreed to surgery, mostly because this courtly gent, who sacrificed much to raise us after our mother's death in 1958, really wanted to reach his 100th birthday six months hence.
His cardiac team and hospice nurse weren't sure he'd make it that long. I, however, was certain he would, based on his congenital obstinacy and optimism.
But after he blew out the candles, then what? I was bereft at the thought of losing the man who had nurtured Steve and me with an imperfect combination of love, discipline and archaic Old World notions of propriety. Worse yet, I had no real plan for getting to him to that Other Side, dignity intact.
I shared these jumbled emotions with Franny. She told me about leaving her kids, her husband and her job to return to her childhood home in Philadelphia and do everything necessary, for as long as necessary. It took less than six weeks for pancreatic cancer to claim her 72-year-old mother.
Her precious words echoing in my ears, we shared an emotional embrace, and I left the dining room certain that helping my father die would, indeed, be an honor and a privilege.
For Aron, some days were better than others. The pacemaker turned my formerly docile, drowsy daddy into a combative insomniac requiring round-the-clock care. Fortunately, a lifetime of frugal living and a profound fear of becoming a burden to his offspring inspired the longtime D.C. taxi driver to salt away enough money to afford private-duty nurses for a year.
I was so lucky in this and other matters. He was in amazingly good health until nearly the end; he kept meticulous financial records, including an up-to-date will. He held all his assets jointly with me and Steve, for ease of inheritance, and had long ago given me durable power-of-attorney over matters medical and monetary. He even owned a cemetery plot.
I paid his bills and saw him daily in the assisted-living facility next door to my Georgetown condo. When it had become clear he could no longer live alone in his Rockville apartment, my chief relocation criterion had been proximity. I was ever grateful for that.
I knew the more time I spent there, the better we'd both feel and, frankly, the better he'd be treated. The staff never knew when I'd show up, and I always tried to thank them for taking such good care of Aron. Steve called regularly, as did my cousin Joshua in Tel Aviv. (Aron's African-born nurses had never heard anyone speak Yiddish before.)
His world constricted as he grew ever more frail. He gave up newspapers, C-SPAN, chess. But he retained his characteristic sense of humor. Asked how he felt, he'd give his stock, jaunty reply in heavily accented English: "Qvite vell for a young man." And he loved to talk to his devoted caregivers about his Warsaw boyhood, his life in 1930s Paris, his arrival in segregated Washington with my mother in 1937, before Hitler wiped out nearly everyone in both their families.
After his big birthday, the hospice nurse -- God love her -- warned that he could go at any time. I felt I had an obligation to help him exit this life as easily as possible. During a sleepless night of my own, I walked next door to hang out with him. We sat on the side of his bed, my arms around his bony shoulders, and I broached the topic I had been dancing around for months.
Was he ready to die?
He was not at all shy about discussing his demise. He made clear he had no regrets about the hand life had dealt him. "I did what I had to do. I made a living, took care of you both, saw you through college and marriage. Now the machine is wearing out."
The conversation was enormously comforting to me, as I think it was to him. It gave him a chance to deliver his own brief but eloquent eulogy, and to articulate his acceptance of the inevitable.
Because he seemed to appreciate the dialogue, I kept on questioning.
Did he want to be cremated? I asked. Good thing I did. I had assumed the answer would be yes -- despite ownership of a cemetery plot bought when my mother died. He was the consummate pragmatist who had left behind the Orthodoxy of his youth to become an idealistic Socialist, and later, an ardent Democrat. He rarely went to shul .
But I was wrong about his final wishes. Perhaps because most of his kin had been incinerated in the Holocaust, or because he had been widowed for nearly a half-century, he very much wanted to be buried next to his beloved wife.
I returned home that night, grateful for our mutual willingness to discuss what for so many parents and adult children is difficult, if not impossible. (Tips on Broaching the Subject of Death)
By early spring, Franny's "honor and privilege" paradigm was occasionally strained because Aron was genuinely suffering. Plus, he was running through his once-substantial nest egg at such an alarming rate he would be broke by autumn.
Weeks before I began calling nursing homes that accepted Medicaid patients, I found myself having frequent, guilty conversations with friends and colleagues who also had ailing parents. Like spies or adulterers, we discussed the unspeakable in hushed tones, wishing, hoping they would pass away peacefully because this was no way to live. I was secretly heartened by a flu vaccine shortage, which, alas, proved temporary. After Aron reached his 10th month of hospice care, I was terrified he would be dropped from this wonderful program because he wasn't sufficiently terminal.
Then, on Mother's Day weekend -- a favorite family holiday, on which Steve and I always feted the man I had dubbed "My Father, the Jewish Mother" -- something snapped. Around 2 a.m. Sunday, he tried to attack his nurse with a chair and, in the confusion, he fell. (She had feinted sideways and was unhurt). I rushed over to his apartment, where Aron demanded I call an ambulance. It would have taken him to the nearest hospital, Georgetown, a Catholic facility, at a time when the country was still reverberating from the Terry Schiavo debate. Seized by paranoia that he might become some sectarian stranger's end-of-life pawn, I instead drove him to Sibley, where they shot him up with morphine, put his arm in a sling and released him.
On the way home at dawn, a roaring argument ensued, just like those we had had more than 40 years earlier when he was a harried single parent and I an obnoxious, motherless teenager chafing under humiliating curfews and dress codes.
In this latest round, he accused me of selling his little house in Silver Spring and using the money to buy myself a pair of condos.
"Honey, the proceeds wouldn't buy two parking spaces in my building," I yelled back.
"I can't tell you how happy I'll be when I don't have to depend on you for money anymore," he countered.
"You think I'm paying for your nurses and your apartment? Listen, you are 100 f------ years old and you are still self-supporting. I may write the checks, but it's your money ," I shouted. (I couldn't help but recall, with a wry smile, that the first time I had ever uttered the F-word, during an adolescent fight with my brother, Aron had slapped my face.)
He relaxed slightly, and I knew something important had just occurred: He understood he was not yet a burden. Later that day, he also realized his injury would make using his walker impossible. Being sentenced to a wheelchair triggered a series of angry rants interspersed with gibberish, followed by an attempt to bite a favorite nurse and throw a book at her.
Seated in his big recliner in a momentary state of calm, he looked at his useless arm and uttered a plaintive lament: "Oy, oy, I have such tsuris, such trouble. I can't even zip my own fly."
I truly believe that was the moment he decided to die. One hospice nurse called it "pre-terminal rage." Another blamed lack of oxygen to the brain. I chose to think of Aron as a proud gladiator who wanted to go out roaring, not whimpering. Three days later, as I sat by his bed holding his hand, he died.
Since then, I have made it a point to reach out to friends whose parents are failing. We talk at midnight, at 6 a.m., midafternoon, whenever. They call from the intensive care unit, the nursing home, a hospice or the highway. I listen, I offer solace.
We talk about the unfairness of one sibling shouldering most of the work, and marvel at the ingenious solutions some families craft for care-sharing. We laugh. We cry. We reminisce. We curse.
And always, before we hang up, I repeat Franny's blessed words.
It is an honor and a privilege to help a parent die. ·