More Things I Forgot to Remember

During my medical training, attendings reminded us again and again to treat patients with dignity:  simple things, such as addressing them by title and last name, keeping them properly draped during physical examinations, sitting down at eye level when possible. The physical nature of the relationship between doctors and patients does not always bode well for that injunction:  there is no dignity in the rectal exam, or in dropping an NG tube, or in any of the many invasive things we do to patients during the acts of healing.  Nevertheless, there are certain things we can do that serve as reminders that our patients are adults, and that their bodies and minds deserve care with compassion and dignity.

So I had forgotten with my father.

“Dad, please eat the last few bites.”  I feed him.

“Dad, you need to take a shower.”  I undress him, I put him in the shower, I soap, I wipe, I dry, I redress him.

“Dad, time to brush your teeth.”  I put toothpaste on toothbrush, fill the cup, watch him brush.

“Dad, wash your hands.”  I give him soap, or hand sanitizer, and I watch to make sure he cleans his hands.

“Dad, please don’t use the stairs by yourself.”  I sleep on a makeshift bed, a human barricade on the staircase landing so that he cannot go downstairs in the middle of the night.

All these things that I think my father need to do, but that he refuses to do on a regular basis.  They are for his own good, right?  Why would he refuse to take care of personal hygiene, or to eat, or to get out of bed, or to do any number of other things that any reasonable human being does, as he did do for most of his life, but has stopped doing since Mom died?

My father is his own person, with his own reasons, making his own choices.  Who am I to try to force him on a course he doesn’t want to take? He wants to be with Mom, and as a thinking being, he is doing something about it.  And it’s about time I remembered the lessons of compassion and dignity.  No question it is a hard thing to watch my father dying, and to let him go on his own terms.  I choose to believe that is his gift to us:  that we are not his parents.

Conversation of the Month:

Me:  “Could you make sure after guests leave Mom and Dad’s house that you clean the                     toilets?  They were filthy after _____ stayed for 8 days back in May, and I had to                     clean them when I got here, 5 months after the fact.  Not fun.”

Brother:  “I did check the toilets, they were fine!”

Me:  “Did you flip the seats up and look underneath?”

Brother (in bewilderment):  “Why would I want to do that?”

In the Autumn of My Life

When white American men get angry and scared, they elect someone who is all they think they want to be.  He is white, he has gobs of money, he is a taker of women, money, property.  He is a racist, he is anti-intellectual, he is apparently amazingly potent — look at the much-younger beautiful-but-thick-as-a-brick wife, the many kids!  He would turn back the clock for all these angry and scared white men to a time when everyone knew where people of color belonged, where women belonged, where there were no such things as LGBT people (let alone rights for them), where Americans were home-grown and had a special relationship with God, where American military-industrial complex governed the world.

As a citizen, an immigrant, a woman, an intellectual, a believer in the rationality of science, a basically ethical human being, I am saddened by the election.  As a historian, I will take the long view, and I know America will survive this.  I don’t believe in American exceptionalism, but I do believe in American resilience.  I am happy to live in a state that did NOT vote him in, and I will do something I never really did before: pay attention to state’s rights.  As a doctor, I am glad that Colorado has become the 6th state to allow right-to-die measures for the terminally ill.  It was a sad election day, but with bright spots and hope intact for the future, for the next four years I will do my best to take care of my little corner of America.

In that little corner, I have other things to think about:

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It’s not just any old knife:  I coveted this knife for the last two decades, and almost two years after Mom died, I brought her knife home.  Today I took it to Jim, my favorite knife sharpener.  He has been retired for years, but he sets up his tools every year during the summer outside one of our local grocery stores, and the rest of the year he sharpens knives and tools out of his garage.  Every time I bring in my other Mac knife (swiped from Mom years ago), he tells me how much he loves these Japanese knives.  Dad took care of Mom’s knives the old-fashioned way, with a whetstone.  This knife was Mom’s everyday/everything knife, and in the last few years, Dad stopped sharpening it for her, much the same way he stopped doing various things around the house for her.  Since her death, he has also stopped doing things for himself.

Dad is down to skin-and-bones now; he can barely get himself out of bed, he needs help bathing, he has a walker he hates to use but has to because he fell and broke his wrist.  Dad was a skinny kid and a skinny young man.  After he came to America, he finally developed a belly.  That belly would go up and down a bit and up again, and when it got too Pooh-like, Mom would put him on a diet.  For 50-something years, he had that belly, and he lost it all in the last year.  I help him bathe, and I am shocked by all he is now.  No fat, no muscle, just skin and bones.  He is so brittle.

I wait for Mom to take him home.