My father is dying.
Not today or tomorrow or this week. Probably not this month. But soon. This year or next year, most likely.
He is eighty-seven and he has had a good, long run. But he is not ready to die. He will not sign a DNR. He likes being alive, he says. He’s not ready to give it up, even though he is very religious and insists he believes in heaven.
He;s had three strokes in the last year. They were probably caused partly by his refusal to take blood thinners after an aortic aneurysm that would have killed him if it had burst when he had been living at home, in rural Illinois (Nauvoo), three hours from the nearest hospital. But he survived it, as he has survived many life-threatening surgeries, and checked himself out of the hospital a few hours later, deciding for himself which of the medications he was prescribed he should take.
No, he’s not a physician. He’s an engineer and a computer scientist. He considers himself smarter than the medical establishment. More than that, he considers many medical aids to be “crutches.” For instance, he refused to wear glasses for many years (still does) because he was convinced wearing glasses just “taught” your eyes to be lazy. I don’t recall him ever going to the doctor when I was living at home. I remember his opinion about such “crutches” as aspirin when you had a headache.
My mother, on the other hand, went to the doctor many times in my growing up years. She took aspirin when she needed it, and she gave it to me often, whenever I complained about a headache or a cold. She has a few minor health problems, but has never had life-threatening surgery. Make of that what you will. It’s probably mostly genetics. That’s what I tell people when they say that I look young. It’s her genes that give that to me. You’d never guess she was ninety.
She always believed in exercise (though not the kind that I do — marathons). She went for a walk every day. My father didn’t do that, either, not until his first heart attack, when he became convinced he should do more exercise. He works out on his exercise bike every day now, just until he works up a sweat, which is better than nothing, I suppose.
But to be fair to my father, some of the medications he was prescribed by doctors over the last year since his aortic aneurysm might also have killed him. One of them likely caused his third stroke. So who is right? That’s one of the problems with my dad. You can shake your head and say he’s an idiot, an old man who doesn’t understand medicine, who is too arrogant to accept advice from anyone. You can point out his tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, very common in people his age. You can talk about old-style Mormonism and the fear of the federal government that he grew up with, transferred to the medical establishment.
But the truth is, he’s not a stereotype. He isn’t stupid. He is, in fact, very much like I am. He’s a skeptic. He’s searching for information the best way he can. He’s processing it with the only mind available to him. He makes mistakes sometimes. And he pays for those mistakes in his own body.
My father was a keen mind. He holds a PhD from MIT. He worked for Bell Labs in the days when Unix was invented. He was part of many advances in computing. He also became a college professor and taught the next generation of computer programmers. And when he retired, he spent many hours working as an expert witness on lawsuits against Microsoft, proving that whatever Microsoft said they owned/invented, he’d already worked on years since. He had a dream after that to create a new Mormon University, Nauvoo University. He poured years of time and passion into that effort, but it failed. And then he was simply retired, trying to do good in his ward, serving in the temple, helping grandchildren with projects that he believed in, mostly church-related.
Only hours after being released from the hospital after his third stroke, my father was on his exercise bicycle, doing a three-hour workout to make up for all his sedentary hours in the hospital. Just hours before his heart surgery, he was asking my brother to find him weights so he could exercise his arms so he didn’t lose any of the precious muscle he imagines he still has.
“He’s just like you, Mom,” my kids said when I told them these stories.
I take a deep breath, wanting to refute this, but then letting it out slowly, accepting the criticism. Or is it a criticism?
I have had a difficult relationship with my father most of my life, struggling to get his approval and then not wanting it anymore, barely talking to him for years on end.
But here we are, he and I. He shuffles along with his walker and whispers to me when I offer him a hand, “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I can’t even use a walker anymore.”
I don’t know, either.