My dad was a believer. He didn’t like religion, and in particular, he didn’t like being told not to question received wisdom, but he believed in God, and he believed in life after death. I don’t think he would’ve liked having his beliefs labeled, but when he took the Belief-o-matic quiz on beliefnet.com a few years ago, the results declared him a pantheist. That seems pretty accurate since he expressed the basic tenet of pantheism in one of his old journals, when he declared that he believed the God is everything and everywhere and “all that is”, and that we are all part of God. Why am I telling you this? After all, my Belief-o-matic results label me as an atheist. But dad and I loved to talk spirituality, philosophy, and religion. And he wanted people to know what he believed, so I’ve taken it upon myself to share his beliefs with you.
I’m not so much of a believer myself. I’d call myself a “hoper”, and I’m hoping like mad that Dad is right about life after death. I spent the other night going through Dad’s journals and I found the following from 2010: “I believe that I am an eternal soul who will never die and will be born into physical life again and again. I am diving into the future, and I see it as something good. I yearn to learn.” Dad did indeed love to learn. He was a prolific reader and a prolific writer (as evidenced by the thousands of pages of his journals that he left behind.)
Unfortunately, Dad lost his ability to learn, to read, and to write as the Alzheimer’s disease robbed him of his faculties over the last few years. He was tested by his neurologist in late 2012 after we first noticed his mind slipping. Then, he had a knee replacement surgery on Monday, February 11, 2013, and when he came out from under the anesthesia, he was a changed man. He was stuck in a state of delirium for months that put him in a nursing home for the first time. We got the results from that first confirming the Alzheimer’s diagnosis on a conference call on March 12, 2013, with the neurologists (Dr. Deutsch) while Dad was still in the hospital. Once the delirium passed in April 2013, dad got to go back home, but it was clear that the dementia had a strengthened its grip on him. He wasn’t back home long before he had to go back to the nursing home a second time in May 2013 because of a blood clot. He got to come home the second time on July 7, 2013. And he got to stay at home with Mom for another 3 and half years until just before this last Christmas.
Unfortunately, the disease continued to progress between 2013 and 2016. At one point, Mom had to buy him an ID bracelet after he got lost while out on a walk around their own neighborhood. Dad never liked being told what to do, but we eventually even had to take away his driver’s license which annoyed him to no end. The loss of freedom and independence was quite painful for him.
He was becoming increasingly unhappy with his situation. At one point, he even stopped eating in order to hasten his own death, but started eating again because he didn’t want to break Mom’s heart. Kind to a fault as always.
By last fall, we couldn’t even take him out in public anymore unless we stayed by his side the entire time. He would wander off. Mom would try to take him to the grocery store with her, but she couldn’t even go a couple aisles over to grab a box of cereal because he wouldn’t stay where she’d left him. I used to take him to the Unitarian church with me on Sunday mornings, but I couldn’t take a bathroom break without Dad leaving the chapel and looking for a ride home.
He was getting physically weaker as well. On December 18, 2016, he had a fall and we had to put him back in the nursing home for the third and final time where he ended up stuck in a wheelchair. He could still speak in complete sentences, but he had lost the ability to even have a basic conversation. One sentence didn’t have anything to do with the next. Every time I went to visit him, he was either sleeping or sitting in his wheelchair staring off into space. He couldn’t read, couldn’t write. He didn’t listen to the radio. He didn’t watch TV. He still recognized our faces, but frequently couldn’t remember what relationship we were to him. He was unfailingly happy to see us, and would always tell us that he loved us. But he was mostly already gone, and it was an awful thing to see.
Last week, he came down with pneumonia again. Probably aspiration pneumonia because his swallowing reflexes had degraded and food and water would get into his lungs. The nursing home staff had him rushed to the hospital Monday morning in a very sorry state. By Tuesday afternoon, the hospice folks came into room 256 of the ICU at Centerpoint Medical Center to talk to us about palliative care. In a rare moment of clarity, Dad woke up and shouted, “I want to die. I want to die.” At 2:30 on that Tuesday afternoon, we withdrew the treatment for the pneumonia and let the medical staff make him comfortable with morphine and ativan. Once the bothersome high-flow nasal cannula that was pumping him full of oxygen was removed, Dad fell into a deep sleep. At 9:40 that night Dad stopped breathing. For the next 4 or 5 minutes, we held Dad’s hands and watched the heart monitor as his heart stopped beating in its normal sinus rhythm, degraded into ventricular fibrillation, and finally to a flat line. While this was happening, I was thinking that this is the last of the energy from Dad’s physical being released back into the universe. He’s no longer trapped in this decaying form. He was able to dive into the future once again, and get back to learning.
I wish I knew what form he was going to take next. He liked to say that he would be reincarnated as one of his great-grandchildren, and I hope that’s true. In the meantime, I hope there is a heaven, an afterlife, where he’s waiting to come back and where he’s whole and joyful again.
The day after he died, a message Dad wrote to me six years ago popped up on my social media feed. “You are my favorite son. Thanks for helping me earlier.” Sure, it was just some algorithm in the Timehop app that put that in my news feed, but I’m always going to think of it as a message from Dad on the other side, letting me know that he’s okay and that we did the right thing letting him go.