“Here, talk to your father,” Carol says. She hands off the phone.
His voice is jolly and tipsy. “Oh, the end is near,” he intones, with an odd mixture of gravity and glee. Why is he saying this? When I’d last seen him, two months before, he had seemed largely fine. Yes, 86 years old; yes, managing prostate cancer and (mostly asymptomatic) emphysema; and yet, full of his customary enthusiasm for music, martinis, old movies, good food.
Is he depressed? But he doesn’t sound depressed.
“I’m not afraid of death!” he proclaims, beginning to quote from one of his favorite poems, “Ode to a Nightingale” — the one I remember from my childhood, because it regularly brought him to tears.
“Darkling I listen; and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death ... Now more than ever seems it rich to die / To cease upon the midnight with no pain.”
He always has been a resonant reciter of poetry, slow and expressive. But I don’t want to hear him say this. I counter with another of his old favorites, from Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night ... Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The next day I call Carol, his wife of more than 40 years. “What’s going on with dad?”
“He’s dying,” she says.
I still don’t believe it. My father has a dramatic flair; he has a fondness for portentous pronouncements. But as she details his symptoms — shortness of breath, difficulty walking, pain in his legs, fatigue and lack of focus, perhaps an issue with his heart — I move up my visit to them in Chicago from next week to tomorrow.
Reality hits when Carol opens the door of their apartment at noon and tells me Dad is sleeping. In 15 years of visits to this light-flooded space on the 30th floor, the door has never been opened by anyone other than my father, grinning, saying “hello hello hello,” ushering me in, bringing out the martini shaker. He normally rises at 6 a.m. Something is happening.
When he wakes, he is entirely himself, although a little breathless. He has plans. He wants out. And when he goes, he wants to be cremated, with his ashes scattered on the railway embankment across from his childhood home in Chicago, where he spent many sun-drenched, mischievous hours. He thinks maybe he can just stop eating. But then laughs that he read about a woman who decided to go that way — and it took 35 days. Thirty-five days!
“I’ve had a wonderful life, and now I can’t live it the way I want to,” he explains. “So I’m done. And that’s OK.”
It is real, and his shortness of breath and pain in his legs (due to a recent and inoperable deterioration in his spine) is awful. I realize I have my mission: to help him, this Shakespeare-loving man, “exit right,” the way he wants. Even though everything in me longs for him to stay.
Here’s the thing about my father: He spent much of his career in the heart of the medical establishment as a writer, and later a press liaison, for the American Medical Association. At the same time, he has a horror of hospitals, and most particularly of what he sees as the wasteful and pointless business of prolonging life at all costs. It’s both a moral and a deeply personal stand — so much so that he wrote two books about it, the subtitles of which were “The High Cost of Mistaking Medicine for Religion” and “Why American Medicine Hasn’t Been Fixed.”
First, I have to convince him that what he needs is not starvation, but hospice care, aimed solely at taking away pain and distress as nature takes its course. For two days, I talk about the wonders of morphine, and he finally agrees.
Between these talks, we watch our favorite cable news shows and lament about politics. We laugh and reminisce. We welcome family visitors. Then hospice swoops in and the apartment is full of the accoutrements of dying: hospital bed, shower chair, bedside commode, oxygen condenser and nasal cannula, syringes to be filled with oral morphine, wipes and gloves and the inevitable adult diapers.
When the hospice nurse talks to Dad about what’s looming — that she is there to make him comfortable, not to “cure” anything — he nods eagerly and assures her that he’s all in. She looks at him, smiling, and says, “I’ve been doing this work for eight years, and you are the happiest patient I have ever met.” After his first dose of morphine, which will ease his breathing as well as his pain, he welcomes his next dose with a smile and an impish “yum, yum!”
Dad, Carol and I are now in Hospice Land. It’s a shape-shifting place where the rules are constantly changing, because Dad’s descent is as swift as he could wish. Every day or two the benchmarks move, from a glass of ice water to a sippy cup to, near the end, a teaspoon of water gently eased into a parched mouth. The shower chair is never used; we go straight to sponge baths in bed, administered by the hospice aide.
More and more, the rhythm of these days reminds me of early parenthood, when the outside world barely existed, and I reflexively watched to see if my baby’s chest was still rising and falling. I find myself doing the same with him, but the script has been flipped. Then, the goal was to continue to live; now, it is to continue to die.
My newborn slept in a basket next to my bed; now Carol and I sleep fitfully next to Dad’s hospital bed so we can take turns soothing him and administering morphine when he’s agitated, serenaded by the distant hum of the oxygen machine. We drift and stagger through the hours, as sleep-deprived as new mothers.
There are diapers, and the necessary indignities of staying clean. There are the murmured phrases — “I love you,” “I’m here” — through the night. Both then and now, there is the driving conviction that the work being done is important, perhaps the most important work of all.
Amid all this, however, there is also pleasure, and beauty. We curate a group of favorite old movies and line them up, one per evening. We get through “Now, Voyager,” “Algiers,” “Laura,” “All About Eve,” “My Man Godfrey,” “North By Northwest,” and, on what would end up being the last night of his life, “Casablanca,” which he knew so well he could likely have performed every role. He had informed us that his fantasy was to go out like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1952 film “Moulin Rouge”: visited on his deathbed by visions of figures from his paintings — Montmartre dancers, ladies of the night, fellow artists and Bohemians — who gather for a ghostly fond farewell.
One afternoon when he seems restless and uncomfortable, I ask if he’d like me to read him some poems. Instead, he requests a few favorite volumes from his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, flips through them, and starts reading aloud himself. The act seems to give him lifeblood, and he gets through “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas and then goes on to John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and two by William Butler Yeats, “Among Schoolchildren” and “The Second Coming.” The young hospice aide is transfixed.
In this limbo between The Beginning of The End and The End, perhaps the most surreal moment comes when I carry out my father’s wish to write his obituary. I had dreaded doing it, thinking it would be unbearably sad; instead, I become more serene as I go along, fixed on capturing not just the outward shape and trajectory of his life, but the man who lived it. I write it sitting in the dimly lit living room — recently abandoned by all of us as the center of gravity shifted to the bedroom we share — with a chilled martini, dad-style, at my side. Beside the darkened windows that look out on gently falling snow and a frozen Lake Michigan, in this cloistered tower bounded by broken nights, I feel a slow, reluctant acceptance of my father’s progress. Then, I go into the bedroom to read his obituary to him, as promised. He approves.
The End comes with drama of which Dad would approve, on a morning when the intermittent snowfall has intensified into a blizzard, turning the apartment into a snow globe. After an agitated night of tossing and turning — of Carol and I administering morphine and holding his hand while telling him “it’s OK,” both of us beginning to hope for his own sake that the end is near — he silently and peacefully slides out of life. “Where are the dancing girls of the Moulin Rouge?” he had playfully asked just days before. I hope they came to him.
In the snow-shrouded hours and days to come, through the pronouncement of death and the removal of his body, we wander around the apartment, untethered. Hospice Land disappears piece by piece, as messengers collect the bed and other material that will ease another person from this world. The outside world has ground to a halt, and yet we, as the surviving inhabitants of it, must go on. Coffee gets made, a death certificate gets produced, a bank must be called, and memories must somehow suffice. I am reminded of a poem titled “Train Ride” by Ruth Stone. The recurring lines are “All things come to an end / No, they go on forever.”
Years ago, I read a book about Zen practice, the main premise of which was that suffering arises when we want things to be other than they are. I want my father here. I want him to go on forever. I want him to have had that visit to the Turner Classic Movies film festival in Los Angeles that he dreamed of. I want to hear him read a poem.
As the weeks pass, I become more in awe of my father’s exit. Never having, to my knowledge, read anything about Zen philosophy, he understood that the escape from suffering is acceptance. He was determined to not cling to a lesser, reduced life ― to look death in the eye and say “hello hello hello.” My father, martini maestro and Zen master? Perhaps. Some things do go on forever.
Michelle Stacey is a writer and editor who lives in Beacon, New York. She is the author of two books, “Consumed: Why Americans Love, Hate, and Fear Food” and “The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery.” Her work has been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, TheParisReview.com, Elle, Glamour, and many other magazines.