Lessons on Dying

I’m reading Cutting For Stone for book club. In it, a character mentions losing a parent after a long illness and that the parent first taught him how to live, and that now they were teaching him how to die.

When Dad was in hospice, the counselor on site (Who – coincidentally – knew my parents when they were married.) told my brother and I the same thing. The last lesson a sick parent can teach their child is how to die. I thought about it a lot at the time, as Dad was dying, and have returned to that thought since the book brought it up.

At first, I wasn’t sure what lessons I learned from the way Dad died. I thought at first – it was a lesson about giving up. Because Dad never even bothered to fight his cancer. But you know? I don’t think – after processing his death and my grief – that’s how I look actually at it. I just don’t see it like that anymore, anyway. That was my first instinct, I know, but even then I didn’t give it a lot of heart. There was no anger or bitterness there. Maybe disappointment, but not even disappointment in him not fighting. It was more just disappointment in the entire situation. That a man who raised two children alone, who lived his life so selflessly, would have to die in that way.

No…I don’t look at it as giving up. I look at it more about a lesson in Weighing the Odds. I’m a pro/con kind of person. Actually, I think I’m just a CON type of person. When weighing a decision, I imagine the worst-case scenario of either outcome. Which of those worst-cases would be the worst. Example – when talking to my brother recently about whether he should run a full-marathon or a half-marathon after an injury he sustained, I looked it it like this: Worst-case if you only run the half? You’ll be bitter with yourself and maybe down on yourself for not meeting your goal. BUT YOU’VE RUN THEM BEFORE, so the goal isn’t that huge anyway. Worst-case if you run the full? You hurt yourself again. And then you’re dealing with that for weeks if not months. To me? Worst-case was MUCH worse if he chose to run the full marathon. Of course, I’m lazy, so to me the better decision would be: Run the full marathon OR sit on my butt and eat donuts. And that – my friends – is a much easier decision to make.

With my Dad – he could have fought his cancer. But – let’s look at worst-case if he DIDN’T fight: He just dies peacefully in a residential hospice. If he DID fight? Worst-case would be more suffering (he was already in SO MUCH PAIN) just from the havoc the cancer had already reeked on his skeletal system, he would have dialysis for 3-4 hours 3 times a week (which he did twice and it was awful because of the previously mentioned skeletal pain), there would be the suffering from the chemotherapy itself, and then…THEN…worst-case? He dies anyway. So…just for kicks…let’s look at BEST case scenario for fighting the cancer. BEST case? EVERYTHING WOULD BE THE SAME. Minus the dying at the end. Basically, even if he was able to kill the cancer, he would have STILL been facing a lifetime of pain from the skeletal damage and a lifetime of dialysis which was already proving difficult. So – for my Dad? The BEST case of one choice was STILL worse than the worse case of the other. To my Dad? To die peacefully in a residential hospice was the easy choice.

His last few weeks after making his decision – the hardest part for him was the waiting. He joked when we asked him if he needed anything about getting someone to speed things up a bit. The waiting was hard on him. But he seemed at peace. He really liked the place he was in. He wasn’t at all talkative. We all talked the first day after he arrived, I guess it was “THE” talk you have with someone who has decided to die. But after that? There was almost no talking. He just spent his last weeks on earth in peace and quiet.

So, what did I learn about dying? I would say I learned not to be scared of it. Because if there is one thing I was very certain about? Is that my Dad did not fear death. Otherwise, the balance of the decisions would have been shifted. If he feared death? Then DEATH on the scale would have weighed a lot heavier than it did and might have counteracted the PAIN and MISERY on the other side. But for Dad? Who really didn’t have much of a view of the afterlife? Death was nothing to fear. I think that’s the most important lesson I learned from him. Whether or not I’ll keep it in mind if I’m ever facing death, I don’t know, but I do seem to have a calmness about it that I don’t think was there before. I think I am thankful for that lesson. I think – in terms of grand lessons my Dad taught me – the one that will probably have the biggest impact on my life? Is not to fear death. I had never really thought of it before the book brought it up again – but that is the last lesson my Dad taught me.

I just hope it’s not indicative of the struggles he faced raising two kids alone. Hopefully we didn’t make his life such hell that death was just an easier road. I mean – I know for damn sure I’m responsible for every gray hair he ever had. After dealing with ME as a teenager? Death at the hand of a bone-crushing cancer? Was probably cake.