Duty Before Death
We can all be sure of one thing, it is an absolute, we will die. On Thanksgiving, I went home to celebrate with my family, but we found we had to deal with something other than just celebration. My sisters and I found my father deceased. It had been many years of mental toil lying in wait for this to happen. My father did not care well for himself and as such was living on borrowed time. When younger he had driven himself into the ground. Poor diet, little to no exercise, alcoholism, it’s a surefire formula to ruin your temple. Surprisingly he had lived until 68 years old, though 12 years ago he confided in me, “Son, I’m either going to shoot myself or drink myself to death. I just don’t know which yet.” Words that stick with you.
In times of loss we don’t truly know how we will respond. It’s a challenging thing to deal with. Shortly after my father delivered the above statement to me he put himself in the hospital with his drinking, by some miracle he survived. It really was quite amazing. To see a person, turn that shade of yellow, to have so many hallucinations, and to somehow have a will to live, yet still try to kill themselves slowly with poison. Sad to see, most certainly. Hard on the mind, absolutely. Then to see them recover, to an extent, after you made peace with their likely demise, quite a strange thing to process. He overcame a lot of odds. Then still toyed with alcohol, on and off. He had peripheral neuropathy, pain and tingling in the feet due to his alcoholism. He would fall on occasion due to this. Still, this didn’t fully dissuade him.
One day I received a call alerting me he was being med-flighted to a hospital due to a heart attack. What had happened was a medication that he was taking had eaten away a portion of his stomach leaving a gaping hole, no doubt enhanced by alcohol consumption, this led to a severe amount of blood loss, causing a heart attack, his second one. The doctors called and asked if they had our permission to remove his stomach during emergency surgery, we consented, as it’s what he would have wanted us to say. Oddly enough, my father was terrified of dying, yet made so many choices to get him there quite fast. They removed his stomach. He then got a branch clot in his lungs, one of the worst blood clots you can get, then another clot in his leg, and finally pneumonia, yet still survived. He then had to be on blood thinners for the remainder of his days, should he have been injured physically, it was likely he would have bled out due to this. He would get terribly large bruises from his falls. When he got out of the hospital he began to wither away. Since he didn’t have a stomach the rest of his body was not equipped to absorb the necessary nutrients so he soon turned to skin and bone. The doctors gave him pills, basically ground up pig pancreas, which he needed to take with every meal, these allowed him to absorb nutrients and semi-properly break down food. He was then able to sustain himself.
From there you would think someone would turn themselves around. Make every right choice they could, but it wasn’t so. He chose to live as a hermit. Mostly closed off from society, never attending family functions, no career to invest himself in. The last 15 years of his life he chose to live in a building that had no shower, no kitchen, no semblance of a home, no living facilities whatsoever. Just a bed, a hotplate, a fridge, and tv. He lived as a hermit, no desire to improve, waiting to die.
During the last few years he told us he had not been drinking. Sometimes I believed him, and sometimes I didn’t. The last two years I thought he hadn’t, but was aware he was abusing some of the pain pills prescribed to him. There are times when you invest so much of yourself, hope, love, and mental energy into trying to make someone get better, but that doesn’t always work. You can’t fix people, you can only fix yourself. Sometimes the only thing you can do is distance yourself as an act of defense, protection from the pain. Ultimately, I was forced to do this. It wore on me too much. So, though I still cared for my father I did not attempt to see him as much as I could, nor be in his presence as much as I would have really liked to.
On Thanksgiving 2017 we sat down to dinner shortly after they hauled my father’s body away. As painful as the day was, it was the best Thanksgiving dinner I ever had. I was surrounded with love, with people who desired to be there. My mother and step dad, my nieces and nephew, my sisters, and my lovely girlfriend. It may have been the most thankful I have ever been. As I looked around gratitude was all I could feel.
A few days later when we went in to look around the building we found my father’s wallet and cell phone. The week before I was in the area and had tried contacting him unsuccessfully. After that his phone indicated that he had talked to one of his old friends. In his wallet, we found a receipt. The receipt was for a liquor store. We found bottles from that store, half empty. In his last days, he ignored my attempts to reach out and instead imbibed. Tragic really, not the ending I imagined.
Having all of this come to pass it has not been easy. We don’t truly know how we will respond in times of loss. It was foolish of me to think I had processed some of this earlier, when we had almost lost him previously. As I have meandered through this time of healing it has been cause for great reflection on my life and much scrutiny on my own choices. Our lives are gifts and these gifts are ours to do with what we please. There is a sense of duty that should be found within, not only to yourself but those around you. This duty is to make the best choices you can make with the knowledge you have. At times, you won’t feel you have enough knowledge to make the best choice, and that is ok. These instances tend to have low impact consequences, as bigger and much more clear decisions tend to have more dire consequences and are by no means a mystery. You can always gain more knowledge or fail forward with little mistakes. Try to learn from the mistakes of those around you, so you don’t have to spend precious time doing the same. I have chosen to live my best life and that’s why I do what I do. To help other people live their best lives. That’s how we make ourselves and each other better, and thusly the world a better place to live in. In the coming year, as we all get a fresh start, I encourage all of you to make the best possible choices and live like you know there is an end. Take what you have learned and put it to use. Take what you wish to know and learn it. Take the time to let each person you care for know that they are in your heart. Take every tragedy and all the pain and suffering that has come your way and let it flow out of you transmuted into something positive and beautiful. I am not without my own faults and challenges, I will do my best to overcome them. May my father’s soul find more peace than it did here.