Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Upon the rack of this tough world...

Time stood still this week here on the Village Green as the clock ran out on my father's life. He fought a brave battle against ILD (interstitial lung disease), living years past anyone's best prognosis. We thought he'd overcome the latest set-back -- after all he'd fought his way through various bouts of pneumonia and bounced back from a lung cancer operation only last year.

But it was not to be this time, and in the wee hours of February 25th, his pulmonary specialist called us all back to the hospital. The fibrosis was not going to be stopped this time. There were only two choices -- ventilation in order to stay alive, or allow the disease to take its deadly course.

Dad was glad to have us there. He said he'd chased the preachers out of his room twice -- politely, of course -- just as he used to turn away the religionists who knocked on our front door when we were kids. My parents raised us in proper Agnostic form -- we learned early on to question authority and to be skeptical of magical thinking. We are a godless family, but that doesn't mean we don't have family values. The difference is that our values were not all pre-written in some holy book and forced upon us by custom or convention, but rather were the outcome of diligent philosophical study and rational weighing of evidence.

My dad was lucid and clear in his instructions not to take prolonging measures. Ventilation was not an option. He turned to the doctor and said, "Well, let's get on with it then." "It" being the process of loading him up with morphine and other painkillers so that as his lungs worked harder and harder in an attempt to bring in oxygen through the thickened walls of his lungs, he would not feel any pain and would gradually drift off into unconsciousness and finally death.

No one could tell us how long it would take -- each ILD sufferer gasps his or her way to dusty death at an individual and unpredictable rate. There are a number of causes of ILD, including environmental and occupational exposures. My dad was born and raised in Akron, and grew up breathing rubber fumes along with everybody else in the city. He worked in the construction trade as a stone mason, mixing mortar and breathing in clouds of cement dust and whatever else was in the air on countless construction sites.

It seemed to take forever for the morphine and other pain meds to have an effect. His entire body was struggling and heaving on each breath, while his arms and legs kept moving in a display of resistance to the inevitable. The family members present held on to his hands, rubbed his head, shoulders and feet for hours, and he was still communicating from under his oxygen mask. He eventually drifted off, and I left to go tend everybody's pets around 5 AM. When I got back around 7 AM he was still thrashing and plucking with his hands, but seemed to be unconscious. However, he suddenly woke up around 8 am and looked at us with an expression of amazement -- he was still alive and we were still there with him. He asked about Obama and was it time for "Morning Joe" -- the Joe Scarborough show that he loved to hate on MSNBC. But the next time he drifted off into morphine-induced sleep, he stayed under until around 3:30 PM when his vital numbers went through a rapid drop and he died peacefully at last.

Before he died, I thanked my dad for being the best dad I could ever hope for. I told him how much I appreciated all the gifts he gave me: love for theatre and all the arts, for science and philosophy, for literature and history, for books and book collecting, and for Shakespeare! I am like my dad in so many ways. I love to work out a design, to make things with my hands. I am project oriented, and once the project is finished, I want to move onto something completely new and different.

When we were young, my dad was often home during the long winter months when it was too cold and snowy to be out laying bricks. Dad always had a project for those winter months. He built a life-sized replica of an Egyptian mummy case, carved a replica set of medieval chessmen, constructed marionettes, designed landscapes for around the house, and worked in his own dark room making prints of his wonderfully artistic photographs.

The best winter was the one in which we hung out together studying sailing ships. My dad started carving a hull for a model clipper ship. It was about three feet long with three masts and it was to be fully functional, with rigging and canvas sails sewn on an old Singer sewing machine by my mom. Finally the day came for it to receive its final coat of paint. I walked around it in awe -- and finally noticed that on the prow of the ship, a name had been painted -- my name! We took it out on Hinckley lake, and it sailed beautifully! Dad photographed it and the resulting images make it look like a real ship out on the rolling sea! We sang sea chanteys as we oared our way behind it in a row boat.

I loved to follow my dad around the garden, and I picked up his love for tending beds of flowers and vegetables. We would often have deep philosophical discussions while we worked outside. I remember asking him once, "Daddy, what is a miracle?" He asked me to imagine a giant ice cream cone dropping down from the sky and landing point down in our back yard. I duly imagined it, and he asked, "Now what are the chances of that actually happening?" I said, "Not much of a chance at all." Then he talked about how miracles are usually claimed by other people, but he'd never witnessed one with his own eyes and that until he did, he would remain skeptical.

Another philosophical discussion that made a deep impact was one about how in life, we need not always see things in absolutes, that not all questions can be answered in terms of black or white. He asked me how many shades of grey are there, and I immediately realized there were too many shades to begin to count.

My dad was very fond of literature, and could quote at will from many sources. The title of this post is from King Lear, which Dad quoted in the hours before his death:
O, let him pass! he hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.
He loved Dylan Thomas and used to recite the following poem to me when I was young. He continues to teach me, beyond his final breath, how to live life to its fullest and how to face death with courage. I will always think of him when I read this poem:

DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

11 comments:

Dave P. said...

VG, I'm very sorry for your loss. That was a beautiful tribute -- he sounds like he was an absolutely wonderful man. Amy and I can empathize -- my dad passed away in 1990; Amy's, two years ago this Saturday. We both adored our dads.

We'll keep you in our thoughts. Best wishes to you and your family.

Kyle said...

Village Green,

My condolences to you and your family on the loss of your father. Extraordinary post.

Fake Plastic Fish said...

What a beautiful post. And what an example your father clearly was for how to live a meaningful life without need of gods or magical thinking. I'm profoundly touched.

KevinBBG said...

Truly a great tribute to your dad. Hits very close to home for me since my mom is 91 and not in good shape (who is at that age?) and Darcy originally had a type of interstitial lung disease as well that led to her lung transplant. Now her problems are caused by ten years of transplant meds and the original lung disaease seems years away.

I'm jealous of your memories of your dad when you were a kid. I have few fond memories of either parent and little good to say about either one. Treasure your memories of such truly great parents.

amy said...

Village Green,

I am so sorry for your loss. You honored your dad with beautiful words and love, and you will always have your memories of him. You will be in our thoughts in the coming days. I hope you'll take comfort in the support of your friends and family, and in all that your dad passed on to you. It sounds like he was a wonderful man with great taste in literature and in daughters. Amy P

Summer Squirrel, FCD said...

Your post made me cry as I lost my father almost 4 years ago to lung cancer. He unknowingly taught me to be a freethinker even though he died a religious man. I still miss him terribly.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about your Dad, Wendy. Tree

redhorse said...

VG: Sorry for the loss you've experienced. But also, happy for you in that your relationship was strong.

I remember my grandma that way; she might be gone, but the relationship is still sustaining.

bishop604 said...

Wendy,
As is all of your work, that was beautiful. I remember your father's eyes, kind and knowing. I always felt comfortable at you home.
Love, Holly

microdot said...

I read your post tonight and I must say, it made me cry.
I lost my parents when I was too young and you are very lucky to have such wonderful memories.
I have a very close friend who was just diagnosed with pretty far advanced Type B3 Lung cancer. Some one who is too young, too talented, too full of good energy for me to believe that this is really happening.
Maybe I can draw some understranding and strength from the very moving piece you wrote..

terra said...

Village Green, I'm sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this tribute with us. It looks like your dad was someone truly inspirational.