This week’s guest author, Heidi Croot, tackles complex and difficult themes. What do we do when the struggle gets too much for the dying? Do we fight, or let them go? She also explores her relationship with her father, and the complexities of becoming a caregiver, at the end of life, to a parent who is, or may be, part stranger. We’re posting Heidi’s work in three installments.
by Heidi Croot
“I can’t live without her,” my father says from his hospital bed, “so make sure your mother is okay.”
Mother feels dizzy and her eyes keep closing. Worse, her right hand has lost function and she can’t manipulate the joystick on her wheelchair. I suspect a calorie crunch, but the chicken and French fries from the hospital cafeteria don’t help.
“Get her to Emergency,” says a nurse. “If she’s had a stroke, she only has a short window to reverse the damage.”
It is September 8, 2011, and we are converged in this sterile room on the fifth floor of University Hospital in London, Ontario, as a result of Daddy, eighty-four, arriving by ambulance five days earlier. When staff at the nursing home where both my parents live discovered him unresponsive in his wheelchair, they called me and I called Mother. She sobbed when she heard the news. “I didn’t treat him well earlier today,” she told me. “We had a fight and walked away from one another.”
He had called out to her, “Reni, come back.”
“But I kept going,” she said. “When he dies, I do too.”
Within an hour of getting the call, my husband Phil and I were on the highway, making the three-hour drive from our home north of Port Hope to London. We arrived at the hospital before midnight and were told that Daddy had been diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia and atrial fibrillation.
“I think this is the way one dies,” he gasped from his bed when he saw me. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” I said. And I did, but it was complicated. I called him “Daddy” because it is a childhood moniker often retained by adult children in England, his homeland, but in fact we had not been close, the two of us. We hardly knew one another. There had been barriers and betrayals over the years. I loved him the way one loves Santa after finding out he’s not real: with a mix of blind loyalty and disillusionment. I wondered if this would be our last chance to rescue the relationship.
Phil and I grabbed catnaps in a small room reserved for families. By morning, Daddy had turned a small corner. He asked about Mother. He didn’t remember their fight. “Must have been someone else she was scrapping with,” he said.
And now, five days later, we conceal from him the possibility that Mother had a stroke. “Her back hurts,” is all I say. “She’s going to the nursing home to rest.”
“Do as you’re told,” he tells her.
Too bad there hadn’t been a bit more of that over the years, I think.
Mother makes a lurching, zigzaggy trip down the hall in her wheelchair, Phil bent sideways over her as he teaches himself how to operate the control stick on the armrest. She looks like a child with her head bowed, her still-brown pageboy barely visible above the backrest. I stay with Daddy, who that morning had talked about giving up. The medical staff replaced his IV, fitted him with a mask delivering eighty percent oxygen, and installed a feeding tube in his nose to prevent him from aspirating food and beverages. “I’ve decided to let go,” he said to me, after these invasive procedures. “I can’t take it anymore.” But with attention diverted from his problems to Mother’s, he rallies a little.
Phil calls me from Emergency. Mother has been told the wait will be three to four hours, far longer than she can manage sitting in her wheelchair. Her back is the most fragile part of her, the result of a spinal fusion sixty years ago when she was twenty-two. Polio paralyzed her legs when she was eight. She refuses a stretcher and decides to skip out. Phil escorts her to the nursing home in the wheel trans. When I call the home an hour later, I learn that she has been assessed for stroke and diagnosed instead with stress and over-exertion. The worry over Daddy, the bumpy rides to hospital, the repetitive strain of steering her wheelchair: it’s all been too much.
Daddy, meanwhile, continues to make his case for death. Not long after the joystick episode, I hold the phone to his ear and he tells Mother, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. I’m sorry.”
She doesn’t seem to hear him. He is puzzled by her lack of response. Permission to die has been denied. Now what is he supposed to do? Later, when his nurse asks if he wants to continue the fight, he replies, “Yes. We’ve come this far.”
But two days later, the phone again to his ear, he refuses to speak. And next day, he tells Mother, “I can’t do it anymore. Don’t visit. I can’t talk.”
I reassure her, tell her that her job is to rest and not to think about visiting today.
She comes anyway.
There is a proprietary courage in her determination to be with her husband in the hospital in spite of what it costs her, but her visits just about undo me. The nursing home has given her custody of two Percocet tablets for back pain, intended to be taken hours apart. She takes them gleefully, in quick succession, and soon becomes strident and self-important. She orders me to join her and Daddy in his room without Phil, but has nothing of import to say. She demands to speak privately to the RN and the same thing happens. She tinkers with Daddy’s care and conversation. Heidi, adjust his pillow. Get him another blanket. Can’t you talk about something else? Keith, quiet now. I want you to sleep.
“Could you encourage her to go home?” I whisper to the RN. He smiles at me and tells Mother he needs her out of the room so he can give my father a bath. I see her to the lobby and into the wheel trans, and alert nursing home staff so they can meet her at the front door.
“Heidi,” he says, when I return. “Heidi.”
“What is it Daddy?”
“Nothing. Nothing. I just wanted to make contact.”
He naps and when he wakes he says, “You’ve given up a lot of your life for me.”
“You’re worth it,” I reply.
“I don’t know.”
That night, new rules applied by the hospital’s infection control department prevent me from loading up on ice, just as I prepare to leave for the evening. I must have ice for the nighttime caregiver. I keep a supply of it in two large Styrofoam cups on his nightstand. A white washcloth drizzled with just the right amount of ice water and chips, folded in three and laid across his forehead, is one of Daddy’s small comforts. He sometimes calls for a refresh five times in as many minutes. Now, yellow tape barricades the stainless steel ice machine. This small challenge defeats me. I ache to be in bed with the TV droning, but brace myself to negotiate the labyrinthine parking garage, find a Walmart, buy a cooler, locate ice, and return. In the elevator, I stop two floors down on a whim and a prayer. “Got ice?” I ask an employee in the hall. Another staff person overhears my question and turns to look at me. “I can take you to ice,” she says. She puts her arm around my shoulder and we walk together to an undefended ice machine.
As the days pass, Daddy’s condition doesn’t improve. The antibiotics don’t seem to be working. The hospital withdraws support for a nighttime companion. A caregiver tells me that once Daddy acknowledges he’s tired and accepts the inevitability of dying, he can just rest into the hammock.
“The crematorium on Oxford Street,” he croaks from his bed. He has the hammock in his sights.
I buy new reading glasses in the hospital gift shop and a kangaroo purse organizer. When I return, they’ve shoved Daddy’s feeding tube further down in his belly. It hurt him. Procedures like this happen so often when I’m out of the room that I sometimes wonder if it’s planned that way.
“Heidi,” he bellows.
His devoted speech language pathologist suggests it’s time for Daddy to move to comfort care, based on his systemic weakness. “His decision,” I say. I make a note to ensure his nurse doesn’t ask him after he’s had a bath or any other exhausting procedure. He sleeps with his mouth open and I can see blood way back in his throat. When he wakes, he sings, “Fish got to swim, birds got to fly…can’t help lovin’ that man of mine.” Thirty minutes later, he says he is tired and fed up. Then apologizes for abandoning hope. He craves apple juice. His kingdom for a sip of ice-cold apple juice. He knows he won’t be allowed to have it.
The doctor asks Daddy if he wants to persevere. “Some patients as sick as you get tired,” he says.
“I don’t want to let you down,” he replies. He’s dying, and he’s worried about everyone else.
I call my mother with an update. “But are we ready to give up?” she asks. “You and I?”
I don’t hide my annoyance. “That’s up to Daddy, not us.”
One day with no warning he says, “Heidi? I’m sorry for the abuse.”
I freeze. I don’t know what to say. I dance like a dancer on speed, frayed, twirling, devolving into blur. Has he sensed my aloofness? Is he trying to break through with this transcendent apology? Is he lying in his hospital bed thinking, something’s not right. She is here, and yet she’s not. How can I reach her? Is he rummaging in his heart to find his best gift, the truth that until this moment he knew but steadfastly denied, the truth that in uttering betrays his fidelity to his spouse?
“Heidi? I’m sorry for the abuse.”
He must wait for me to process this, rise to my feet, approach the bed, grapple for words.
“Well,” I say at last, “you loved your wife.”
“That was no excuse.”
It is a textbook exchange, the celebrated deathbed apology, designed to melt a lifetime of hurt and make things right, but it comes at a time when I have moved past my hunger for it, and yet, there it lies, like an implausible bubble in my hand. I can’t, now that I’ve secured the once-coveted gift, risk further conversation that will cause me to lose it. What he has said is enough. I glide past the subject.
“Why are you so good to me?” he asks another day. I dodge this question, too, and remind him how I’d always said, including in the letters I wrote him in decades past with updates on my life and books I’d read, letters intended to maintain a relationship with him even if I couldn’t with my mother, that I’d be there in a crisis. He remembers the letters, though he didn’t reply to even one of them. “It’s so good to have you near,” he says. “I’m going to drop off now,” and in less than a minute he’s asleep.
Later, his RN teaches me how to shift him in bed so that I can do it unaided. “Give yourself a hug,” he says, showing Daddy how to fold his arms over his chest to make the shift easier.
“I’d rather it was a woman,” Daddy says.
Belly laugh from the nurse. That night Daddy dreams of oranges.
About the author:
Heidi Croot has been published in trade and company publications, under her own name and as a ghostwriter for corporate clients. After more than thirty years in business writing, she is full of joy to be transitioning into a biographical memoir about some vivid people in her family. In 2014, she was published in Renaissance, a WCDR anthology of short stories, and in 2015, short-listed by The Malahat Review. She lives with her husband in Northumberland County.