My father died of esophageal cancer several years ago. It was a horrible, lingering death, and I watched him shrivel and die, in constant pain towards the end. On one of my last visits to his bedside, he asked me whether I thought it was better to die with the full knowledge of what was happening to you, or to be unaware.
It was a startling, unexpected question. My father and I had had few, if any, philosophical discussions in our lives together. Without giving it a lot of thought, I replied, “With knowledge.” I probably thought he was talking about the pain-killing drugs he could ask for, the sort that also numb your mind and make you oblivious, put you into a narcotic coma that takes away the pain and stress.
I have always wanted to know what is happening to me, to be aware of everything around me. I would hate to be unable to read as I do every day now. I would have assumed he would too — both my parents were voracious readers — but he never gave me back his own response, just looked up at the ceiling. I probably thought he was having a pain spasm and didn’t try to pursue it further. I should have noticed then that he was reading less and less as the cancer progressed.
But later I thought more about it, about his question and my response. I still do, but he died before I could return to discuss it with him.
By the time my father was sent to the hospital for his remaining time palliative care, my mother had already been placed in a nursing home. My father had resigned himself to the fact he could no longer care for her as she needed. She had had a stroke in 1960, leaving her left side paralyzed, and by the mid-1990s, was pretty much wheelchair-bound. My father continued to care for her every day, stoic and uncomplaining as he had for almost four decades, but at 92 he simply didn’t have the strength to move her in and out of her chair or bed, or lift her when she fell. The move to a care facility was mandated by both their ages and declining health.