23 September 2009

Betty Draper, House's psychiatrist, and me

I've been absent from this blog for almost a year now. It isn't that I haven't had anything interesting to say -- at least, I hope that's not true -- more that I've been trying to spend more time in the moment and less time thinking about future and past moments. But the other day I had a thought about war that seemed semi-profound, and I was going to write about growing up during the time of Vietnam and, later, M*A*S*H. The 6 o'clock evening news and M*A*S*H were the biggest influences on my feelings about war early in my life, and later in my life, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five were probably the biggest influences.

This was going to be a post about war, and how old a child "should be" when he or she learns about war, but that will have to wait.

Instead, it's going to be a post about losing my father.

As an aside, or a preamble, I watch very little TV in Germany. I watch only the two shows I am willing to buy from iTunes, Mad Men and House. As it happens, the predominant story lines of each show have dealt with fathers dying -- first, House's father died last season, which facilitated his reunion with his BFF (Wilson). This season, Betty's father died suddenly, setting in motion a number of unpleasant reactions within the household. On House, the father of Dr. House's therapist died in the first episode. So everywhere I look, I have Hollywood's role models for how to behave (House's therapist) and how not to behave (Betty Draper, House) when one's father dies. And yet I have no idea how to behave, now that my own father is dying.

Three weeks ago, my father ended up in the hospital after a prolonged episode of having trouble breathing. He's been having trouble breathing for years, due in part to emphysema, in part to COPD, and in part, my sister and I were starting to think, to depression/anxiety. The doctors ran an extensive battery of tests on him, all of which were negative. Diagnosis: nothing is wrong with you. It's all in your head. They sent him home with anti-depressants, feeling no better, and considerably weaker than when he had gone in, thanks to 2+ days of lying nearly immobile in bed.

Two weeks ago, he fell and hit his head. Again, he ended up in the hospital. This time, the prognosis was more serious: dysphagia. It seems that bits of food are being diverted from his esophagus into his lungs, which can (and has, and will again) cause pneumonia, in a vicious and never-ending cycle.

The only solution, apparently, is a feeding, or PEG tube, which he flatly rejected. Therefore, my sister has determined -- probably correctly -- that hospice care is the only appropriate solution. So today, or tomorrow, my father will be coming home to stay with my mother for the last time, and tomorrow I'll be going home to say goodbye to him. I don't know how long it will take a 100-pound 86-year-old man to die of starvation, but I'm guessing it won't take very long.

I selfishly want my father to stay alive at least a while longer, if not for me than for my son, but my sister won't let me be selfish. She's probably right, but... what if she's not? It's like being wrong about the verdict in a capital punishment case.

I regret to say that, so far at least, my response to my father's impending death has not been much better than Betty Draper's response to her father's sudden death. I'm trying to balance out my snappishness with extra doses of hugs and love, but I'm not sure I've succeeded.

I'm (nearly) ready to say goodbye to my father, who has in so many ways been given more than a cat's nine lives, but I worry that my son won't even remember him as he grows up. I hope he will be able to keep at least a tiny memory of my father in his heart.

I am so glad that in recent years my parents and I have taken to telling each other how much we love each other. We were never a very touchy-feely huggy family, and until my son was born, I don't think I ever told my parents I loved them. My mother would tell me how much she loved me, always, but I was never able to say it without feeling like a phony. I occasionally told my dad I loved him, probably because he has been so close to death, so many times, but never my mom, until I had my son, and finally understood how much she loved me. So the last time I spoke to my dad -- which was three weeks, too long ago, because I've been immersed in meeting preparation for the last six weeks -- I know we told him how much we loved him.

Strange how it took having a child to appreciate my parents. What insights will losing my dad bring?

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