Saturday, September 26, 2015

My Dad's last lesson

My Dad's star
My Dad taught me to drive, golf and fold towels properly (he was an Air Force man.) Great life lessons too, like how to work hard, how to enjoy life, and one last and very surprising thing, he taught me something about death and dying.  I thought that's what Peggy was doing.  My Mom's brain has slowly been dying over the past 13 years, so I have had lots of time, too much time to think, sympathize, empathize, and even pontificate every angle and emotion about dying. I am waiting sadly, hopefully and patiently for it.  Every time I see her, I think it's near, sometimes so near that I'm afraid to leave her, but I've been thinking that for well over 5 years now.

My Dad had cancer the last few years of his life, but he was very matter of the fact about it.  He got a kidney out, had his weekly chemo, a little radiation and generally just did what the doctors told him and lived with it.  He still went out to dinner and happy hour with his buddies and walked his dogs.  I'd call him and he'd never, ever complain, maybe that he was just a little more tired than usual.  So when he had a seizure and asked me to come down to Florida I went, immediately.  Having been so close to death with my Mom for so long, I was not prepared at all for what might suddenly happen to my Dad.

His cancer had metastasized to his brain, and all his treatments were going to be stopped.  There was talk of rehab and getting him back on his feet.  My brothers flew down, we installed handrails and I met with his doctors.  He never talked about dying, he didn't want to.  He didn't even tell us what or where, if anything should happen to him.  I felt like I was the only one that knew the inevitable was around the corner, and that corner was coming up fast.  I knew the signs, I knew the feeling, I just knew it.

So, I got on  3 planes in the middle of the night to get myself back down to Florida. When I walked in his room his breathing was heavy, loud and coming through the grit of his teeth.  It wasn't difficult for him to breathe air it just had the sound of endurance running out. The groan of a weight lifter pushing through that last set. I dropped my bag and kissed him. I told him that it's okay, that I love him, that he is loved, by me, by so many and that he's an awesome guy.  I was here to hold his hand, like how he held mine when I was little and how he was one of the very first hands I ever held. I thanked him for that too.  His breathing began to quiet.  The sound of intention, concentration, determination all the stuff that has made up my Dad's life quieted down to a slow, relaxed sort of dream, and I laid down near him on the tiny love seat with my shoes still on, next to my suitcase.  I drifted in and out of sleep to the softening sound of his breath and the quiet golf game on tv until I woke to a missing sound.  The sound of his breath and his life that had let go. My Dad died within two hours after I got there.  I got to hold his hand, it was okay, it was kinda beautiful.  It was peaceful, it was logical, it wasn't like my Mom.

So when I came home, and walked in my Mom's room I knew what to expect, and it wasn't death.

telling Peggy about Dad dying

I knew what to expect, and it wasn't death

Visiting Peggy, celebrating another birthday.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Oliver Sacks and Me

"You can't see me, but I know you can feel me, because I'm right here."
Oliver Sacks blew open my mind.  He taught me that people don't see the world the same way I do. They don't taste things the same way, they don't feel things the same way, or even remember things the same way.  He showed me people navigate life in all kinds of unique ways.  Why were his scientific, non-fiction books so enthralling?  It's because his stories were honest reflections and observations about people.  He didn't refer to people as mental or retarded or diseased. We're all just people.  Our brains have different ways of seeing and being in the world. These individual stories gave me a better understanding of the human existence.  Through his observations and stories he excited, fascinated and encouraged me to explore my own vision of reality through my art, feelings and relationships.

What I didn't know when I first read his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat two decades ago is that his words would give me the patience and empathy I would need today, as my Mother continues to delve into the depths of Alzheimer's Disease.   My reality become skewed as the natural  time line from daughter to mother and grandmother began to wobble  The tables turned and I had to care for my Mom as she went backwards mentally and began seeing the world through a completely different lens and time zone than me.  It has been an arduous road fought hard with love, but sometimes despair in the lack of understanding.  Over the past 12 years I have gone back to Oliver Sacks' words for comfort, insight and strength.  He knew disease didn't define the person and that understanding was as important as a cure.  Although this quote is not his, he experienced the value of its insight and believed it was important to share, just like the stories he shared about the people he studied.

The animating theme of Sacks’s work is the importance of individuality in medicine. He quoted Sir William Osler with approval – “Ask not what disease the person has, but rather what person the disease has” – and wrote in Awakenings: “There is nothing alive which is not individual: our health is ours; our diseases are ours; our reactions are ours – no less than our minds or our faces.”

Oliver Sacks Obituary