Have you ever noticed that there is only one word for dying in the English language? One word for such a complex and multi-layered experience. It doesn’t quite seem enough.
I have been pondering this a lot lately as I watch my dad suddenly drop into full dementia. Two weeks ago he was still walking, still carrying on a decent conversation, going out to lunch, reading the paper, doing the crossword puzzle and watching all of his beloved sports.
Today he is so shaky that he is confined to a wheelchair, has trouble getting food onto his fork, much less to his mouth, sometimes does not know how to change channels on his TV, and is waiting for someone to take him home from “this establishment”. It was an abrupt shift, although the signs were there if one looked hard enough. A series of falls, difficulty eating, difficulty coming up with some words, especially names, and sleeping more and more.
What word does one use for this moment of decay? How does one describe the feelings that I get from watching a fiercely independent and incredibly intelligent man become a shell of his former self? How do I stop from crying when he asks who is going to take him home?
For the dying is not just happening to my dad, but to me as well. When he told me the other day that he felt like he was falling through the floor I could totally relate. The bottom has dropped out of my life. My giant, dragon-slaying dad is now lost in some world of his own that I cannot access. My obnoxious, demanding, judgmental, self-absorbed father is gone, replaced by a person that I must now get to know all over again. I find shards and broken bits of “dad” in this new person and feel hope, only to have it dashed the next time he opens his mouth.
The good news is that, for the most part, this new person that is not my dad is not in pain, nor is he really aware anymore that something has drastically changed in his life. He does not seem too concerned about most stuff, although it is frustrating to him when his palsy prevents him from eating his food. The other good news is that the staff of the nursing home is a group of amazing people, caring for him (and me) in such a gracious and loving way as to give me goosebumps. He has not been an easy man to deal with at any time of his life, but they have managed to hang in there with him. The joys of a small town are evident most at this moment.
One word that must encompass the days, months and years of Self degeneration. The loss of function, the road to death, all these single moments that comprise a whole. Sometimes the dying happens in leaps and bounds, sometimes it walks like a glacier. Sometimes it even backtracks along the path and we think maybe we were wrong to think that death is coming. We know what the end of the story is, we’ve seen it before a myriad of times. But the dying part is such an individual experience, so particular to each person’s circumstances of birth, life and genetics. And there is no second-guessing, no cookbook approach on how to handle it.
And no matter how the dying happens, life goes on.