Saturday, 17 August 2013

It must have been...

(This is a repost of a blog entry from another site that I originally wrote on March 31, 2005.  It was the day that Terry Schiavo died after she had been on life support for 15 years.  Her husband and parents had fought for a long time over the decision to discontinue the support; her husband wanted to let her go, her parents wanted to keep her alive at all costs.)

...the warmest day of the spring, on that day when I made the decision to let my father die.

By the time I got off the train from downtown Montréal at the station near his hospice, the sun was high in the sky, and the mounds of snow in the parkland I walked through were melting away fast. It was early April 2001.

I didn't want to believe what the doctors had told me; the cancer had spread to papa's brain.  A lifetime of cigarettes had caught up with him the summer before and the tumor in his throat caused strokes; the second one leaving him paralyzed on one side.

He chose rehab over radiation.  He had already chosen not to have the standard surgery in cases of throat cancer - he wanted to be able to talk.  The doctors said without the surgery they could only give him 6 months to 2 years.  But his older brother had suffered the same cancer and lived 2 silent, painfully long years, never again speaking, after his surgery.  My father didn't want to do that to himself, to us.

During the winter, the cancer moved silently as papa made progress at regaining use of his left side.  Then I developed pneumonia and was unable to visit him for 5 weeks.  When they at last let me in to see him, his mind was going.  He talked about going fishing with his father, asked if we had talked to his older brother, called my step-sister by her mother's name.

The year before, I had worked for the head of the Neuroscience unit at a research laboratory.  I knew far too well the damage that illness and trauma could do to a human brain - my father's brain.

I asked for his file and read through the list of chemicals being poured into his body.  The head nurse asked me to come back to talk to the director.  As my father's oldest child, I would have to make decisions.  He was in no condition to sign the power of attorney form I had brought with me.

I asked for a CAT scan to make sure; maybe, just maybe they were wrong and the cancer hadn't spread that far.  But it had.  I had it sent via email to my former boss.  He pulled it up on the computer screen.  I had seen enough brain scans to know that what I was looking at wasn't right.

And so, on that April day four years ago, I went back to the small town on the north shore of the St. Lawrence and sat with my father.  I fed him his lunch and I sat holding his hand while he drifted in and out of consciousness.

Only when he was asleep did I beg him to tell me what to do.

But I already knew.

When the director of the hospice handed me the DNR, I hesitated.  But I knew, with painful clarity, that it would be cruel in the extreme to keep my father alive for long goodbyes that might not ease my sorrow at losing him.

I put the pen to paper and signed it.

My father died a month later - on a hot, sunny day filled with the promise of summer.

There are dark, lonely nights when the seeds of doubt creep in and voices whisper "you killed your father"... but when I think of how cancer ravaged his poor body and took his mind...

I know I did the right thing.

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