Being Mortal, myself


Being Mortal, myself. 

This holiday season has been a reminder that I am, indeed, mortal. On the evening of Thursday, December 6, as we were finishing dinner, my nose began to drip. Loading up on Emergence-C and mucinex, I went to bed early. I blasted the humidifier and said a prayer or two. Friday as we drove to Cape Cod to celebrate our son’s birthday I believed a cold had been averted. But not so. A month later I’m half way through round two of antibiotics having had the flu and a sinus infection. I’m still deaf in my right ear and when I get on the bike to exercise I’m just glad it’s stationary. 

My dilemma has been compounded by my father’s recent struggles. Dad, at 89, lives alone in the house I grew up in. Recently, mastering Uber, he had given up driving but still worked every day from home or at the school he had helped found. Then on December 7 he suffered a stroke. He was on a FaceTime call with a student in Pennsylvania. One minute he was chatting and then he was unconscious. 

Luckily, his student had the presence of mind to phone 911. Otherwise he could have been there for days. Twenty minutes later, having broken down the front door, the EMTs found him, still unconscious, on his study floor.  He was taken by ambulance to the hospital and eventually admitted. The next morning I started the six hour car ride to New Jersey not knowing yet what had happened but intensely sensing that his situation and our relationship was about to change radically. 

The month that has passed has included a variety of “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding” situations that has at least made me laugh at times. Included is the post-Christmas family trek to Vermont to ski. Sick as a dog I gnawed on leather quality schnitzel for dinner at the Trapp Family lodge, endured the mice, broken heat, and busted hot tub at our less than fab hotel and rescued our son’s girlfriend after her car broke down...a three hour round trip expedition.  After it simultaneously started raining and freezing we did abandon ship and went home.  

I’ve driven to New Jersey  3 times.  

Understanding and coming to terms with dad’s new state-of-being is complicated and on-going. He seemingly hasn’t suffered any major effects. His speech is fine. No paralysis.  Perhaps most people can’t tell but I see the differences. Most apparent is his increased anxiety and lack of cheer. He’s always been kind of a Woody Allen type but now it’s out of control. He forgets things and repeats himself. At times he’s dramatic and I think he just needs to find something to do. He could be working with students again. 

Now that he has a twenty-four hour care giver he finally has three meals a day and clean clothes but perhaps schlepping to the cellar to do the laundry helped give him purpose and direction. At other times I’m convinced he’s dying even though the doctors say he’s fundamentally fine. 

I think the truth is he’s living the last chapter. We just don’t know how or when it will end. There’s a lot of drama and anxiety. He’s irritatingly miserable.  But despite all that I love him. I want him to be comfortable and as relaxed as possible. Happy might be a stretch for him. My friend, who’s an end-of-life consultant to families, reminds me dying is a process. We don’t come to terms and sit and wait. From day to day our state of mind is in flux with some days more settled and others fraught. It’s quite a ride for everyone involved. 

Re-reading Atul Gwande’s phenomenal book, Being Mortal, comes at an opportune time. Nearing 60 myself, I read it this time thinking not only of my aging father but of me.  It’s reassuring to hear that some of this agitation is par for aging. For instance, my dad worries about dying but is sort of disappointed when he wakes up and finds he’s still around. Seems ridiculous but this contradiction isn’t unusual.  

Taking a month to recover from illness reminds me that time is passing. I’m not 30 or 40 or even 50 anymore which is shocking!  How I want to live in the coming years is important to me and, I realize, a choice. Gwande says we need to figure out what makes us want to keep going when we get to the end. One guy said if he could still eat chocolate ice cream and watch football he could put up with other losses. I’m not sure what my answer will be. But I do know I want to be creating in some way up till the end even if it’s doing origami. I want grace. I don’t want regret. Most of all I hope to have gratitude. It sweetens even my fiercest resentment and helps me to accept what I can’t control…which is mostly everything. This month has proven that.

Mason Gehring