He died alone, attended by strangers. There was no one at his bedside to hold his hand, no one to say a prayer, no one to speak words of comfort or to mourn his passing. No one in his family had spoken to him in years and he had no friends. He lived, and died, a solitary man.
He had lost contact with the first of his estranged sons over 30 years ago, when his temper caused him to strike out in anger and assault his son over a minor disagreement. The son was a new dad himself and did not want his children exposed to such outbursts. The uncontrolled anger of their grandfather was not something he would allow to be a part of their lives. The son demanded that his father get help with his anger and deal with his history of rage and abuse. The man refused to change and instead chose to never see this son or grandchildren again.
In spite of this his relationship with his other two sons continued. They were fearful of a potential blow-up and their relationships with their father were uneasy, but the man somehow managed to hold his anger in check. While he was not particularly affectionate or emotionally close, he seemed somewhat reasonable and his sons were reluctant to abandon him. They settled into a dysfunctional peace.
It did not last. Almost 10 years after becoming estranged with the one son he lost his relationship with the second. The son had a little boy and the man was unkind to his grandson in a meanspirited fashion. Concerned for his son, the man’s son brought the unkindness to his father’s attention. The man went into a rage at the criticism. Foul language and personal attacks resulted, and the man disowned this son. For a second time in his life he chose his pride over relationship with a son. In the ensuing 20 years they had only a single brief conversation. The son offered to renew relationship, but the proud man was not interested. The children of this second son have no memory of their grandfather.
The third son, the oldest, was the last to go. As he was single there was no family to offend or abuse and he was able to continue a relationship with his father. He knew his father had wronged his brothers but as he had not yet wronged him he did not feel he could walk away from his dad. When the man fell on hard times this son was there to help. He loved his father and had hope that they could have a good relationship. Then one day the man stole money from his son, an act of betrayal which proved too great for the relationship to survive. The son turned his back on his father, never to speak to him again.
The man was left alone with his wife. Although heartbroken at the loss of relationship with their children and grandchildren she stayed by the man’s side. Her years of loyalty were repaid with physical and verbal abuse. She was constantly demeaned and criticized. It took several years for her to muster the courage to leave him, but once she found the strength she left him. He was alone.
Old, poor and with nowhere else to go, he ended up in a nursing home. Undaunted and unaffected by his lost relationships he found a new outlet for his abuse, the nurses and other nursing home staff. It was so severe the administration of the home threatened to force him to find another facility.
He was ultimately allowed to stay. I do not know if it was because he changed his behavior or if it was out of pity for his plight. His memory had begun to fail and perhaps the staff of the facility decided to be gracious to the demented man and allowed his cognitive decline to be an excuse for his unacceptable behavior. For the next several years he lived in the home. No one ever came to visit and no one called.
His memory faded to the point where he was no longer aware of his circumstances. The staff reported he was living 20 years in the past. His mental capacity had decreased dramatically. Five days ago his mental decline had another consequence. He had become unable to protect his airway when he swallowed and on that day food or fluids dripped into his lungs. The aspiration of stomach contents caused pneumonia. The resultant infection spread through his body, throwing him into shock and stealing what little mental function remained. By the time he was admitted to the intensive care unit he was unable to communicate at all.
Within a few days it was clear that while his lungs might survive the infection his brain would not. Although his lung function and blood tests improved his neurologic function did not. It was clear that even if he did survive it would be in a vegetative state. Believing that it would be unkind to prolong his life in such a severely incapacitated state the doctors decided they wanted to stop aggressive treatment and allow him to pass in peace. Although they believed it to be the right thing to they wanted to talk to his family before making the decision.
They called the nursing home and asked for information on his next of kin. The nursing home director drove to the home of his ex-wife, hoping she would help. Unwilling to assume the burden of making such a grave decision, she gave him the contact information of his sons.
It was the youngest son, the one he had disowned, who was the first to respond. Although he had spoken to his father only a single time in the previous 24 years, and though that conversation had been over 5 years earlier, he realized he could not pass the responsibility on. Someone had to make the decision. Fortunately for him the choice was clear. He had never heard of anyone wishing their life prolonged in a non-responsive state and knew it would be cruel to continue keeping his father alive. He knew it would be best for the doctors to allow him to die. He called his brothers to confirm their agreement and then informed the doctors that they were in one accord. The doctors could place their father on “comfort status” and allow him to pass in peace.
The man died a few hours later. Alone. He died as he had lived, isolated and alienated, friendless and estranged from his family.
The man was my father, and I am the one he disowned 24 years ago. I have spent the day reflecting on the sadness of his passing, still perplexed at the lonely life he chose.
While I do not understand his choice, I am at peace with the truth that it was a choice he consciously made. When I spoke to him 5 years ago I asked if he wanted to see me, if he had an interest in relationship. He did not.
The knowledge that I offered relationship gives me comfort. I chose to forgive, I chose to be kind, I chose to try and rebuild. He chose differently. His choice was loneliness.
I am peace with other choices as well. I have chosen to be different than my father. I spent my father’s last day with my wife. It was my day off and I chose to spend it as I always do, with her. We talked and laughed and delighted in one another’s company. Throughout the day I dialogued via text with my daughter, who I am blessed to see every day. At the end of the day my son called me. We talked about his son, my grandson, who I see nearly every week. I shared my day with my family.
I am truly blessed. Like my father, I have been allowed to choose the type of father and husband I want to be. Unlike my father, I have chosen love and relationship. Unlike my father, I am not alone.