I’ve been trying to figure out how to say this for some time now, so I’m just going to come right out and say it.
I certainly wish you a good life, but I also wish you a good death.
Let me explain.
A quarter century ago today, on Sunday of Labor Day weekend, my much-beloved step-father, Dean Long whom I called Dad, slipped away from us – after removing his own tracheostomy tube.
He took that drastic action because his life, and his slow, tortuous death had become untenable. He was ready to end his own suffering and check out.
Of course, obituaries never tell us about actions like that. They focus on the positive and the family members – generally saying nothing at all about the final chapters of the person’s life.
Especially if it was less than wonderful.
I assure you, death from “end stage COPD” or slow oxygen starvation is less than wonderful.
Our lives are punctuated by major events – the first of which, of course, is our birth. We have absolutely no control or input over that event.
Throughout our lives, other milestones occur – loves, marriages perhaps, births of family members, deaths of loved ones and eventually, our own passing over as our light winks out.
We do control the intervening events, at least to some extent, by our own choices.
But then, there’s death. We may or may not influence our own death, the cause and or the timing. Death may be sudden and swift, an accident perhaps, or long and lingering. It may be as a direct result of our choices, or not.
Each relationship has its own landmark events. My relationship with Dad was divided into three sections, the first being before he came into my life.
I didn’t know him until I was a tween, and he didn’t start dating Mom until I was a teen.
The transition into part 2 occurred in 1972 when he became my stepfather.
He had lost his own daughter as an infant who would have been about my age, before his wife’s death, so our unification as a family was a blessing for both of us.
He had faith and confidence in me when no one else did. He told me I could do anything I set my mind to, and I believed him.
The third stage has been since his passing, life without him.
A Personal Demon
Dad lived through hell with the slow, inevitable deaths of his daughter and wife. His only remaining child, a son, had issues that eventually would claim him too.
Dad had chronic health challenges himself, bleeding ulcers, then believed to have been brought on by stress. No one ever doubted that, given what he was living through on a daily basis at the time the ulcers developed.
Dad’s first wife and family were called into a hospital room more than once to be informed of the grim news that he wasn’t going to make it.
Like a cat with 9 lives, miraculously, somehow, he did. But Dad wasn’t immortal, and eventually became his own worst enemy. He ran out of lives and miracles.
When he was young, smoking was popular and fashionable. We can thank the tobacco industry for that. He was hooked.
After they were married, Mom quit smoking, but Dad never did. Nicotine is incredibly addictive – the fourth most addictive substance in the world according to American Addiction Centers. Knowing people who have and haven’t kicked the habit, I can vouch for that statement. Even 30 years later Mom said she WANTED to smoke. She just didn’t.
In the 1980s, Dad began to develop breathing problems. At first, he chalked it up to age and his other pre-existing health issues. By then he was, after all, 60.
He ignored it as long as possible as the symptoms gradually worsened, until ignoring them wasn’t possible anymore. One day in the early 1990s he had an “incident” at home. How my mother who was only a slip of a woman managed to drag him out of the house, shove his limp body into the car and drive the 25 miles or so to the nearest hospital emergency room is beyond me, but she did.
There was little hope. Mom thought sure he was dead and alternated between yelling at him not to give up and praying as she drove like a bat out of hell.
In spite of his condition, the ER staff revived him – barely. He remained hospitalized for weeks, and when finally released, he hadn’t had a cigarette since that fateful day.
He was told that if he stopped smoking permanently, as in didn’t start again, he would probably have several good years left, but if he did not, he would die of COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, then known as Emphysema. I’ll spare you the photo, but if you’d like to see what lung tissue of a smoker with COPD looks like, click here.
It’s no wonder he couldn’t breathe.
Back to the Barn
Dad was a life-long farmer, and even though he had officially been “retired” for years, unless the farmer moves away from the farm itself, they never really retire.
Dad leased the land to his nephew, but he still kept his workshop at the barn which was his regular respite from all things worldly.
It was also a place where Dad could smoke without anyone knowing. Except of course, we did know. The smell gave him away.
He wound up in and out of the hospital for the next year or two, always swearing he wouldn’t smoke again, and always doing it anyway.
Labor Day, 1994
My life was a mess in 1994, from one end to the other. Every way imaginable – in addition to Dad’s illness.
My (now former) husband suffered a massive stroke in June of 1993, but hadn’t died. I was supporting the family and trying to earn enough to pay his gargantuan bills, PLUS being the caregiver for a severely disabled husband who could never be left alone, not even for a minute.
In early summer, not long after Father’s Day, Dad became ill again. The routine was disturbingly familiar – the hospital, intensive care, tubes, machines endlessly beeping and sleep-deprived prayers.
A few weeks later, Dad was sent to a “rehab hospital” where it was hoped he would recover enough to go home, or at least to a nursing home.
Dad wasn’t improving this time. Mom said he was getting worse and it didn’t look good. She was a wreck. Mom and Dad both needed me.
My friend who was a nurse came to stay with my husband so my daughter and I could go and visit Dad one last time. My son was at college and headed for the hospital directly from there.
Dad had been on a ventilator to assist his breathing, but a permanent tracheostomy was installed during his hospital stay, causing him not to be able to talk.
Dad, quite irritated with the trach, and that he was still alive and miserable, was done with both – and removed his own trach tube.
How he managed to find enough strength to do that is also beyond me – but he was one determined man, and he did.
That event in the rehab hospital caused him to be sent back to the regular hospital where he refused all treatment except for comfort care.
At least now he could talk to people.
The family had gathered and we were sleeping in shifts on the floor in the family lounge, taking turns sitting by his side. As the sun rose on Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend, Dad drifted in and out of fitful sleep. My daughter and I had not left the hospital in 2 days and we needed to go to the farm to take a shower.
Dad hadn’t yet passed away – in spite of removing his trach. Maybe there really was at least a glimmer of hope.
We told Dad we’d be back in an hour. He tried to make a joke about how difficult it was to die and how he wasn’t doing a very good job. My eyes filled with tears to see him that way, so small and weak and vulnerable, yet still trying to be jovial to make us laugh.
A man of very few words who rarely expressed emotion, he told us he loved us. That should have clued me.
As I walked into the farmhouse 20 minutes later, the phone was ringing. There was no need to go back to the hospital. Dad was gone. He had chosen his time and departed.
We turned around and went back anyway, for Mom.
Apparently, Dad was waiting for us to leave because he knew how upsetting it would be for my daughter and me to see him pass. He told Mom as much. Then he shut his eyes.
His last act on this earth was one of generosity – even in his death.
That was the story of those 22 years I spent as his daughter – he was always thinking about Mom and me.
Thankfully, Mom was sitting beside him, holding his hand, telling him to “go on.”
Somehow, I think he was waiting for me at the farm that day, by the time I arrived. I knew he was with me. I was not alone.
His Own Terms
In one way, Dad died on his own terms. He removed the trach and decided enough was enough.
But in another very crucial way, he did not. No one would ever choose to slowly suffocate.
Yes, you could say that he asked for it by continuing to smoke – and indeed he did.
Addictions are like that – you don’t think about the long-term consequences because you’re only going to do it “just this once” to quiet the cravings. Of course, there is always another “just this once.”
But by the time we had arrived at Labor Day weekend in 1994, the only thing Dad had control over was removing that trach tube. There was no turning back time.
Anger, Sadness, Grief
I loved and still do love Dad incredibly, but I was angry with him too. It seemed like his death was so senseless and futile.
He could have lived longer had he only been able to walk away from those evil cigarettes, if not in the early 1970s when Mom quit, then at least later.
But he was unable to do that.
He suffered terribly, and so did we.
I know one thing – if there was anything that could have motivated Dad enough to stop smoking, it would have been me, Mom and my kids. He told me that he felt he had failed us – although we reassured him that he had not and we loved him regardless.
I didn’t, but I wanted to say that he had only failed himself. I didn’t have to. He knew that. I didn’t want him to think I was disappointed in him.
It wasn’t his own death that concerned him, but what would happen to Mom.
Everyone suffered during Dad’s prolonged illness, his actual death, and the ramifications to the family afterwards. Those lasted more than another twenty years – beyond Mom’s death – and his death colored the quality of the rest of her life.
Thank goodness we had those 22 years, less 18 days, together as a family.
A Quarter Century
It’s been a quarter century ago this morning that he left us.
As I ponder this past 25 years, of course I grieve his actual passing and life without him. He was a Godsend to my family. A quiet, inspirational giant of humanity among men.
However, I’m also struck with the sadness and horrific slowness of his death.
In 1990 when my sister died, it wasn’t slow, but quick and sudden. We were shocked and no one except her husband got to say goodbye. In fact, I’m not positive that he did.
I used to think I didn’t know which was worse, sudden departure with no goodbyes or a more protracted exit, allowing goodbyes.
Clearly, there’s a range for everything. No one, but no one wants a prolonged suffering tortuous death. Just as clearly, very few would opt for an impaired life with little quality or becoming a burden on the family.
Some people might prefer a happy medium, with a little “notice” in order to get their affairs in order and say a proper goodbye, whatever that is for them.
We may or may not have influence or control over the circumstances of our death.
Our “affairs” should always be in order.
Wishing You a Good Death
Perhaps the nicest thing I can do for you is to wish you a “good death” when you’re the most vulnerable and no longer in control of your life. Whatever it is that “good death” means to you.
I know what it means for me.
I’ve prepared, well, except for my genealogy which is probably never going to be “done.” I have a lot more research to do, so I hope I’m graced with a lot more time to finish😊
Wills and other documents have been put in place because eventually, we all need them.
I know that the last time I see people may actually “be” the last time I see them – due to either their demise or mine.
Every time we get in the car to run an errand, we risk our lives at some level. I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to stay home. I accept whatever level of risk is inherent with full comprehension that one day, somehow, someplace, my 9 lives will expire too.
I try to live my life with the understanding that if I get my way, my “good death” will be quick and sudden. Preferably sleeping with a cat or two laying on me, with no one bothered with hospitals and such. That means that one fateful day, an otherwise routine interaction with my family will in fact be their final memory of me. That’s how I’ll be remembered. I always try to keep that in mind and choose my words so that neither I nor they will have regrets.
May you experience a wonderful life, living every day and each experience to its fullest potential. Reaping every opportunity that life has to offer.
And when the time comes, may you also be blessed with a “good death.”
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