“What’s a hospice?”
My cab driver asked this reasonable question about our destination.
I explained that a hospice is where dying people go to live out their last days in comfort. He was silent for the rest of the ride. What else was there to say?
My dad, diagnosed with Stage 4 thymus cancer, had put a stop to treatment. He had difficulty breathing. His voice was almost gone. More chemoradiation would slightly extend his life but at the cost of greater deterioration and pain. As a surgeon and a religious man, he accepted his impending death without false hope or despair. His family? Not so much.
He died over 10 years ago, but certain memories of that time are more vivid than what I did yesterday. I can still hear the little noise I made (between a sniffle and a gasp) when he told us the diagnosis. In the hospital, I can still see his finger clicking the button on the infusion pump to deliver more painkillers, a food tray being delivered to replace an older one barely touched. And a little over a year after my little noise, when he was out of the hospital but not like we’d hoped, I can still feel the silence of that cab ride.
When someone in the hospital is being treated for cancer, friends and acquaintances drop by to offer their support. When a dying person is transferred to a hospice – when the sick bed becomes a death bed – the guest list gets much shorter. We’d reached the point where family members were taking turns sitting by my dad’s side. The end could come at any time. That was where that cab driver was taking me: to the end.
The silence of the cab ride was matched by the silence of the hospice. There was a communal kitchen, but not much small talk. Relatives grabbed a bagel or a muffin before returning to their dying loved one’s side. In his room, my dad was mostly asleep, if sleep is the right word for the wheezing stillness before death. A well-meaning friend had brought a box of DVDs. They sat in the corner unopened by the never-used TV.
The real show, such as it was, took place outside the window. There, I watched a squirrel try to reach a bird feeder hanging from a tree. It climbed up the tree and down the chain holding the bird feeder, then retreated, then tried again. Every time I visited, it seemed to get closer to its goal. Every time I visited, too, my dad spent more time asleep.
On my last visit, he said he felt the end was getting near. There was nothing to do now but sit with him and wait. As his wheezing slowed down, as he slept for the final time, I looked out the window and saw the squirrel reach the bird feeder. I stood up to take a photo because otherwise it would have all seemed unreal.
I was struck by the scene because back at home, in healthier times, my dad had his own bird feeder. To his frustration, it, too, was often overtaken by squirrels. Now here we were, at the end of his life, but there was no frustration. He was too far gone to see the squirrel reach the bird feeder this last time. But I watched, and I started to understand: the time for anger had passed. He had accepted death, even if it hadn’t come at a time of his choosing: even though he never got to enjoy retirement, or see his grandchild grow, or meet other grandchildren to come.
We can’t always control nature or stop cancer. But we can choose how we respond to a loss of control; how we live when death approaches. My dad chose quality of life over an extension of life, a hospice over more suffering. Selfishly, I’d wished that he’d chosen differently, so I could be with him for longer. By staying at my dad’s death bed, and looking out the window, I didn’t lose that feeling. But I learned some of his acceptance.
Ben Shragge is from Hamilton, and currently lives in Arlington, Mass.