Posts Tagged ‘Death’

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Freelance Friday: My Father’s Answer

May 25, 2012

In the summer of 2001, I was the director of engineering for a large company in eastern North Carolina; the day had been long and taxing, like most of my days during the heat of summer.  Increased power needs, to keep the plant cool, were taking our systems to the very limits.  How could I know later that night the test of my own limits would begin.

Like most boys, my father was my hero.  He was a big man physically, his personality more gentle than rough.  Given his size, it was easy for him to be that way.  For me, he always had the answer.  One day, during the first grade, he showed up at school to pick me up for a doctor’s appointment.  Filling the frame of the classroom door, I had to smile at the comments of my classmates: “He’s a giant!” exclaimed one; “Wow, is that you’re Dad?” asked another.  It was always like that with my Dad, he always commanded a calm strength, by either his size or his character.  Nothing could ever beat him in my mind.

It was 9:15PM one late August night.  I had just settled into bed, as the next day was due to start well before sunrise.  I almost did not answer when the phone started ringing; I was in no mood for another silly question from work.  I did answer.  The sound of my father’s voice gave me some concern; it was not our routine to talk on the phone much.  Someone must be sick or been hurt in some way.  My father and I had fallen into a strange distance from one another.  I guess most do, as sons become men on their own.  I braced myself and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I have lung cancer.”  The words swam around in some misty haze in my head.  I heard them; they simply could not be the truth.  After a few uncomfortable moments getting my wits about me, the questions started.  “What does this mean?”  “What are you going to do about it?”  What do you need me to do…,” I rapid-fired questions off at my father as if from the barrel of a machine gun.  “I’m going to the Mayo in Jacksonville,” he replied in a strong, calm voice.  Again, he had the answers.

Over the next few months, I made it a point to visit with my Dad.  Making time when something as this happens to a family member is understandable.  Reflecting now, I can only regret not doing more of that all along; we always make time when time is the commodity we see running out.  A surprise trip for Father’s Day was the first time I noticed something was different.  It was nothing overt or dramatic.  More the little things only noticed by someone that has distance between visits.  For the first time, true fear swelled inside me.  I would not allow myself to feel in my heart what my head was telling me.  It was not something I wanted to talk with my Dad about; but my head won out.  With his quiet dignity, he answered my concerns and reassured me.  I believed that if anyone would beat cancer, it would be him.

As the year went on, the heat of the new summer was approaching.  Things with Dad were going as well as anyone expected.  My fears began to subside.  Dad even joked at how the chemo was doing just the opposite of what he was told it would do.  Instead of losing his hair, a snow-white abundance covered his head.  No appetite?  Not my Dad!  He was eating everything in sight.  As late July arrived, I was hopeful about life.  My job was doing great; Dad was doing great.  Maybe the last year had produced for Daddy the result he has said.  He would beat this.  I was not surprised – Daddy always had the answers.

Again, a phone call in the night would change all that.  This time it was my Aunt, “You need to come see your Dad.”  This time there was no confusion.  It was something in her voice.  “He is in the hospital and wants you to come see him.”  The same call was made to my brother and sisters.  Daddy was calling the family close to him.

I talked with my boss and explained the situation.  To his credit, he simply told me to take all the time I needed so I was off on the six-hour drive home.  I went right to the hospital.  Finding my way through the labyrinth of wings, halls, and floors, I found Daddy’s room.  My stepmother was in the room with him.  I grew up with the fortune of four patents, my father and mother divorced before I was even in grade school and both remarried.  I had four good, strong role models in my life.  Daddy was sleeping so I greeted my stepmother, Pat.  She looked tired.

As a nurse, Pat was well accustomed to the routine of a hospital.  This was both a blessing and curse.  She could resolve any minor problems but it also gave insight into what was not being said.  She knew then my Dad’s time was limited and it showed.  She had spent the last few days at his side and that too showed.  She did not want him to be alone.  Looking at her and my Dad, I made up my mind then – I called work and told them I was not going to be back for some time.

Daddy needed constant care.  Pat had been that care day and night.  She would not go home to sleep.  Taking my father’s example, I calmly told her I would stay with Daddy each night so she could go home and sleep.  At first, she was against the idea.  I further explained that it would do no one any good, especially Daddy, if she became sick also.  Pat reluctantly agreed.

I spent that night in a chair by Dad’s side.  I gained a fuller appreciation of Pat’s exhaustion.  Hospitals are full of activity day and night.  Everything from the nurse making rounds to the person cleaning the hall seemed loud.  Looking back, I was being overly sensitive.  I have a deep respect for hospitals and the work they do, but it is not a good place to die, at least not for Daddy.  We all understood that was the road we were on.  The first order of business was to get Dad out of there.

The next morning, when Pat arrived, she asked me to visit a local hospice and see what I thought of it.  She had been by before she came to the hospital that morning and they were expecting me.  For most of us, judging the relative decency of a hospice is about as familiar as quantum physics, I had no idea what to look for or what kind of questions to ask.  Thank God, the staff at the hospice understood.  In a short time, I was convinced this was the place for my Dad.  By the time I relieved Pat for the night, Daddy was resting comfortable in a nice room at the hospice.  It even had a view.

My father needed assistance walking and was very weak.  He was in little pain and his mind very alert.  I truly think it was only the loss of his self-reliance that bothered him.  He did not like to ask for help.  Over the next few days, we came to an understanding of how we would operate in the environment of the hospice.  Each evening Pat would leave us with instructions for the night, we agreed to them but as soon as the coast was clear, Daddy set the schedule for the night.

Most of my life I knew my Father as a stoic man.  He did not suffer his problems on others.  Showing emotions did not come easy for him.  Now, within the confines of that room, our relationship changed.  Still not complaining, Daddy became more open with me about his feelings and life.  Not one time did I hear my Father complain about his situation.  I stated how unfair it was for him to have lung cancer; after all, he quit smoking over 30 years before.  He simply reminded me that life is all about choices.  He made his the best he could with what he knew at the time and was not going to regret it now.  Moreover, he did not want me to show him the sadness I felt.  He needed me to simply enjoy his company.  From that moment on, that is how it was.

Over the next week, my father was getting weaker and weaker.  More than assisting him now, I was carrying him to the bathroom.  I promised Pat I would not leave him for a moment, but I had to allow my Father the dignity of privacy when I could, he did not ask, it was something I just knew to do.  It is hard to convey how you can have such joy while feeling such total pain in your soul.  It was time for me to be there for my father.  I have wished my whole life to make my father proud of me, every boy does.  One bad night, that became the subject of our talk.

It was sometime after 2:00AM, Daddy needed to go to the restroom.  I was having a hard time by this point and he knew it.  When we finally got him back into bed and all tucked in he told he was very proud of me.  “I want you to know I am proud of you,” he started.  “Not for all this,” referring to staying with him at night.  “I am proud of you for who you are.”  Without saying a word, I sat in the chair and placed my head on his bed.  To say I was crying does not cover it.  I was sobbing.  Daddy simply put his hand on my head and told me it was OK.  Lying on that bed, dying, he still had the answers I needed to hear.

The next night things had worsened.  No longer would we be making trips to the bathroom.  No longer was his mind sharp.  It seems he had accomplished all that he needed to and was now ready to slip away from us.  We made it through that night without speaking.  The next day, Pat had arranged for Dad to get a bath.  They have a special one there for people that cannot take one on their own.  I arrived to find Daddy calm and relaxed from it.  He had said his goodbyes to everyone and no longer wanted visitors.  It was Pat and I now for the most part.  Daddy’s time was very near; Patty knew it more than me.  I still had that small part of me that refused to think this could be happening to him.  We settled in for the night.

I had been bringing a book with me for the last few days as Daddy mostly slept now.  I think I had read every book the hospice had to offer so now I was adding to their selection.  It was sometime after 8:00PM and Daddy’s breathing became labored.  I called the family caregiver (I am sure that is not the right term, but they do so much for people it fits much more than nurse),  he did not have to say it was time – I knew it.  I held Daddy’s hand for the last time and told him that I loved him and that it was OK, everything was done and he need not worry any more.  Even though I said it, it was more like him talking to me, trying to make me understand.  I did understand.  He gripped my hand, with that took one more breath, and was gone.

I called home to tell Pat and she came right away.  Strangely, I did not cry.  I thought I would.  I had calmness about me.  I had not yet understood the gift my father had given me over the past two weeks.  Now I simply felt at peace with him.  I think about that time now often.  Everyday something from it inspires me to do better.  I am so thankful to have had the privilege of spending that time with my father.  More than watching him die, I watched him live until the very end.  With his last breath, he gave me one last answer – everything is OK.

 

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What If We Lost Seattle

January 10, 2011

Imagine if you woke up on January 1, after a fun New Year’s night, made your coffee, tuned in the news and heard every person (man, woman, and child) in Seattle, Washington suddenly died, roughly 616,000 people gone from the planet forever.  It would shock our nation; it would shock the entire world.

Describing the instant magnitude of such a loss is beyond the power of words.  What if the loss spread out over the course of a year, is it any less devastating?  Take Afghanistan, our emotional house would be no less devastated if we lost the 100,000 or so U.S. service members currently serving in a year, much less a number like 616,000.  No, spreading such a massive loss over a year does nothing to negate the impact.

So why is it, in our society, we happily ignore the loss of a Seattle’s worth of population every year?  Over 1,800 people a day, every single day, lost!  The major news organizations do not bother to report it, at least not with the same sensationalism a 22-year old idiot with a gun commands.  Do not misunderstand, the unfolding tragedy in Arizona, with its senseless brutality, requires immediate coverage if we, as a people, wish to understand it.  The question is, given the overwhelming magnitude of loosing over six-hundred-thousand Americans yearly, why we show it such little concern.

Now, Seattle is in no more danger than any other place, in fact, it seems less likely something dire happens there than in other cities.  Seattle simply has a convenient population size to compare to the number one killer of Americans – heart disease.  According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC), in 2007, the most current year for such data, 616,067 people died in the United States from heart related issues[1].  Seattle’s population, in 2009, reported in at 616, 627 making it the 23rd most populous city in the country[2].  In other words, enough Americans die each year from heart disease, alone, to populate any city in America except the top 22.  For example, heart disease kills more Americans, each year, than live in the following cities:

o  Atlanta, Georgia – 540,922 people

o  Omaha, Nebraska – 454,731 people

o  Miami, Florida – 433,136 people

o  Washington, DC – 599,657 people

o  Sacramento, California – 466,676 people

o  Cleveland, Ohio – 431,369 people

[Population figures taken from U.S. Census data[3]]

Oddly enough, we already have the answer to reduce the impact of heart disease.  It does not require some newfangled program, discovery, invention, or billions of tax dollars.  What we need is awareness and the ability to correct our behavior (easier said than done for sure).  Perhaps that is the reason heart disease receive the relatively low attention it does, the answers are with individuals and not in some pill.  According to the Mayo Clinic’s website[4], here are five easy steps to reduce the risk of heart disease:

  1. Don’t smoke or use tobacco products. By now, everyone knows the danger of smoking.  It leads to atherosclerosis as well as introducing as many as 4,800 chemicals into the body, but the danger does not end with smoking tobacco.  Snuff and chewing tobacco present a danger to the heart as well.  Nicotine restricts or narrows blood vessels making the heart work harder to supply oxygen to the body.  Not to mention, smoking also increases the chances of the number two killer in America – cancer.  In other words, want to kill yourself, smoke like a chimney.  It may not be the most pleasant way to go but you cannot argue with its success.Another point, car companies spend millions, if not billions, to make safer cars.  In 2007 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported 41,259 car related deaths[5].  That is less than 10% the number of deaths by heart disease.  While not all heart disease related deaths are attributable to smoking, large portions are.  How much money do tobacco companies spend to make their product safe?
  2. Get active. Participating in physical activity for at least 30-minutes on most days of the week provides benefits in just about every aspect of life.  It reduces the chances of developing conditions that place strain upon the heart, conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.  While these condition carry problems all their own, they also adversely affect the heart.Remember, things like gardening, housekeeping, taking the stairs, and walking the dog all count.  You do not have to exercise strenuously to achieve benefits.  Need another reason to exercise?  Many study show moderate exercise improves the sex life.  Who needs more reason than that?
  3. Eat a heart-healthy diet. There are many diets and plans out there, most focus on dropping weight rather than improving heart-health. Eating a special diet called the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)[6] can help protect your heart as well.  Following the DASH diet means eating foods that are low in fat, cholesterol and salt.  The diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products that can help protect your heart.  Following this diet along with being active will reduce your weight as well.The Mayo also goes on to say “Heart-healthy eating isn’t all about cutting back, though.  Most people, for instance, need to add more fruits and vegetables to their diet — with a goal of five to 10 servings a day.  Eating that many fruits and vegetables can not only help prevent heart disease but also may help prevent cancer.”  What does all that mean, people do not have to starve to lose weight and have a healthy heart.
  4. Get regular health screenings. High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage your heart and blood vessels.  But without testing for them, you probably won’t know whether you have these conditions.  Regular screening can tell you what your numbers are and whether you need to take action.
  5. Maintain a healthy weight. A healthy weight lends itself to a healthy heart.  Carrying too much weight is simply all around bad for the body.  It stresses the joints, lungs, and circulation as well as the heart.  A modest reduction of 10% is beneficial for heart health.  According to The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a couple of key guides are Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist size[7].  As muscle weighs more than fat, the index can give high numbers for people with a healthy weight.  For that reason, waist size also comes into play.  Anything over 40” for men and 35” for women is overweight when the BMI is over 25.  Here are the basic guidelines:

o  Underweight = <18.5

o  Normal weight = 18.5–24.9

o  Overweight = 25–29.9

o  Obesity = BMI of 30 or greater

While these steps are not a guarantee in preventing a heart attack or developing a heart related disease, they do greatly reduce the risk as well as provide for a generally healthier life.  So often, in today’s world, we depend upon science or some invention to solve a particular problem.  In this case, there is no need to wait.

Heart disease, being the number one killer of Americans, is something we can address without the help of technology or waiting for some pharmaceutical miracle drug.  It is up to us, through our individual action, to change the reason for heart disease not being in the news from apathy, to its being only a minor cause of death.  Let’s make it a story with no need to cover in the first place.


[1] “FASTSTATS – Deaths and Mortality.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm>.

[2] “Population Estimates.” Census Bureau Home Page. Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <http://www.census.gov/popest/cities/SUB-EST2009.html>.

[3] ibid

[4] Staff, Mayo Clinic. “Heart Disease Prevention: 5 Strategies Keep Your Heart Healthy – MayoClinic.com.” Mayo Clinic. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.
<http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/heart-disease-prevention/WO00041>.

[5] FARS Encyclopedia. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.
<http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx>.

[6] The DASH Diet Eating Plan. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.
<http://www.dashdiet.org/>.

[7] “Calculate Your BMI – Standard BMI Calculator.” Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <http://www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi/>.

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