Finding Dignity in the Dying of the Light

The old man celebrated his birthday last week with two mouthfuls of a cupcake, then slid back into oblivion. He had made it to 88, accepting congratulations of staff and family in the hospital.

As I sat in my chair, I wondered if it had been worth it.

Seeing him here in diapers, catheterized, his leg swollen to twice its size, his once barreled chest sunken, his arms the size of breadsticks, we all wondered when it would end, if it would end badly. We certainly knew this was not the ending of his choosing.

The man had been a Master of the Universe, a wealthy man who had been able to retire in his 50s and spend two decades moving back and forth from his posh condo in Ottawa to his posh condo in Florida. There had been cruises, sumptuous dinners out, fine clothes and the latest electronics.

The wife had died years ago, but the man was fortunate to find a new beauty, a good solid woman who didn't want him for his money, just his company. They made a lovely couple from all accounts; even recently at the retirement home, where they were a pair to be admired.

Of course, there had been myriad health scares. Cancer ate a hole in his chest the size of a baseball. The rest of him was bionic, more or less -- two hips, one knee. And then there was the prostate, that little cog of manly pleasure, that eventually gives every man cancer. He'd had a bout with that, too.

But every time, he was able to beat the racing clock, bounce back -- until he turned 86, and the Grim Reaper began to loiter around the corners of his life robbing him of all that was good. It took away his eyesight, grew tumors in his nether regions and then started tinkering with his ticker. The decline was slow, his demeanor cheerful, but everybody knew he was slowing down. Once the hare, he had now become the tortoise moving ever slower toward the finish line.

He took his sweet time because he never wanted to get to the destination. He was still loving the trip.

So he fought back, and when he couldn't fight he'd cry in the corner listening to the big screen television he could no longer see. He started to drink, then fall down, then become confused.

Finally, the decision was made by the family to put him somewhere.

It is at this point in life when money comes in handy. Retirement homes are not cheap. They are full of hands that wipe arses, make the meals, do the laundry and administer the pills. At $5,000 a month, plus amenities, all that Bell stock came in handy. Too bad he was too sick to enjoy it all.

He tried to fit in as best he could. He joined the choir and sang at supper. He went on excursions, and sometimes got out to fine dining establishments. But then he soiled himself at dinner, and that put an end to that.

At what point does one ask: is that all there is?

Blind, incontinent, hard of hearing, on a walker, bed ridden? At what point does each of us decide that the journey was great but the end is the Bates Motel with Flint, Michigan water?

Watching this once vibrant man at the end of days, I realize that the decision was never up to him. He commanded a workforce of thousands in his day, had amassed a stellar portfolio but now, the decisions were being made by people who didn't always have his best interests in mind.

How many times had he been rushed to hospital to find himself sitting in a corridor, bare-assed on a gurney while nurses and orderlies bussled past him? How many times had he been sent back to the home as one of those patients for whom they could do nothing? Why had the caregivers bothered at all?

The doctors didn't seem to mind operating on him. One time, when he was hospitalized for his heart, the surgeon operated on his knee. Didn't tell the family. He barely remembered himself.

Just weeks ago, doctors scheduled him for both open heart and colorectal surgery even though it was clear even to housekeeping that he was dying.

It reminded me of that line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you know, when Sundance was afraid to jump off a cliff because he couldn't swim?

"The fall will probably kill you," said Butch.

A few weeks ago, the doctors threw in the towel. They decided it was time to retire his number. I'm not sure they ever told him that. Even if they did, he probably won't remember.

He's in palliative care now, running the clock.

Palliative care, that's doctor speak for turn up the morphine.

At least he's comfortable.

One day, he turned to his daughter, asked her to come close.

"Do I have enough money?" he asked.

"Yes Dad, you are still a wealthy man."

Wealthy, no longer healthy or wise.

Well, at least the end is near. He has minutes, hours, days.

Nobody really knows.

They say about people who die that they are going to a better place.

I think the old man would agree.

Any place is better than where he is right now.

Dying, with no dignity.

Hooked up to machines.

Peeing in a tube. Shitting in a diaper.

Even a decent stock portfolio couldn't save him from this sad day.


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