Dilbert creator Scott Adams posted this blog entry recently, about his hope that his father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, would die soon, and how he hopes anyone who opposes assisted suicide follows him. (Note: His father has since passed.) I have mixed feelings about assisted suicide, and you’ve heard it all before, so I won’t bore you with more debate. I’m not worked up about what Adams wrote. They’re the words of someone who’s suffering, and I’m glad his family has finally found some peace.
I can say with certainty that I wish I’d let my father die sooner. If any of my family and his close friends are reading these painful words, I hope you can understand. Dad was a good man and I loved him deeply, but it was way, way, way past time for him to go.
In April 2010, I approved surgery to clear a bowel obstruction. I didn’t know it was a bowel obstruction. His doctors said it could be anything from a hernia to cancer, and they wouldn’t know for sure until they opened him. I felt like an asshole letting him die from a hernia, so I said OK. He couldn’t approve the surgery himself because he had Alzheimer’s and didn’t understand what was happening to him. He struggled while a nurse and doctor intubated him. I held him still while I stroked his hair and hoped I was doing the right thing.
I wasn’t. I was profoundly wrong.
It happened nine months after my mother died, and I wasn’t ready to let go. My weakness consigned him to another nine months of misery and pain, after which he finally died from another bowel obstruction.
I got a second chance to make things right after the surgery. His heart started to fail, and his doctor suggested a pacemaker. I could have said no. I should have said no. But after putting him through bowel surgery, a pacemaker was no biggie, right? Except that his body desperately wanted to die, and I robbed him of the chance to do it quietly.
Medical care for the chronically ill, and especially for the elderly, is a slippery slope. One thing leads to another, and eventually you find your father hooked up to a machine that’s keeping his kidneys functioning and wondering how the hell you got there. It’s like a TV movie of the week. One minute you’re drinking wine coolers in your high school parking lot and the next you’re a washed-up junkie snorting blow off a hooker’s ass.
I said no to the last surgery, but I wasn’t in charge at that point, so he went under the knife one more time. My biggest fear was that he would recover, in the sense that “recovery” meant more misery as he slogged toward the inevitable. I was relieved when he died a few days later. He never woke up.
Maybe assisted suicide is the way to go. Maybe it isn’t. I’m still not sure. I’d settle for the ability to back away from lost causes. For the most part, I followed his doctors’ advice. The decisions were overwhelming, and I held a helpless man’s life in my hands while everyone around me, doctors included, suggested treatments that would extend his life — and his suffering. It was easier with Mom. With a prognosis of three months to live (she died in two), it was easier to back away. It’s a relief to hear someone say “enough is enough” when the grieving people around you are begging you to fight on.
Dad’s been gone three years today. I’m not beating myself up over it anymore. I just hope the experience has given me a better sense of where to draw the line.