Thank you to the sixty-something man in the parking lot.
He came to help me when I was so crazed and desperate I would have called out to Dick Cheney or Adolf Hitler and asked them to help had either of them come goose-stepping by. I was struggling to get my father out of the car and into his wheelchair so I could push him into the urologist’s office.
“I don’t want to get out,” Daddy said. Every time I pulled his right leg out onto the pavement, he pulled it back in the car.
Together, this stranger and I wheedled and eased him up, then back into his wheelchair. I think Daddy weighs 170 pounds or so; that’s a lot of dead weight when he doesn’t want to cooperate. It’s a little easier pushing him in the wheelchair while he drags his feet, but not much.
We went inside the doctor’s office, as a series of strangers opened doors for us. Thanks, again, to all of them.
“We need a urine sample,” the physician’s assistant told me. They were examining Daddy today because he’d had some blood in his urine. “Will he cooperate?”
He has Alzheimer’s, I told him, and he’s incontinent. He can’t cooperate.
Still, we moved him onto a port-a-john, yanking down his pants. He sat there and hummed and sang and talked to himself. Otherwise, he didn’t or couldn’t cooperate. Another move, with two of us supporting his weight, back into the wheelchair.
Daddy and I sat in the room and stared. I look at him sometimes and wonder where he’s gone. The whole concept of Alzheimer’s interferes with my vague notion that we all have souls. Does my father still have a soul? Are breathing and a beating heart the signs a soul is present? Or are they almost nothing, automatic physical functions?
My father is almost bald now and he’s missing a few teeth. Once, he was strong and handsome and athletic. I was never the daughter he wanted — assuming he wanted children at all. For years, he seemed to exist to tell me what was wrong with me, to correct me in any way he could, as harshly as possible. How odd it is that I am the one who is here with him all those years later. Neither of us would have ever anticipated that. But, you know, life doesn’t give a damn what you anticipated.
A technician came in to do an ultrasound. She pulled Daddy’s pants down a little. Daddy rallied a little. “This should be fun,” he said.
The physician’s assistant came back to catheterize Daddy’s bladder. This, clearly, was not fun. I tried to distract him while the tube went in, but it didn’t help much.
The urine was extracted and tested. “No blood in his urine,” the doctor said.
So, we sat in his office, with my father staring off at the wall and the paintings, and the doctor and I talked about options. Since Daddy had smoked a pipe for years, there was a possibility — slight, but a possibility — he might have bladder cancer. A CT scan would make a clearer diagnosis.
It was funny how it all came pouring out of me at that point. No catheter was required for that particular flow. Why a CT scan? Why more tests? Why more doctor’s visits and possible hospitalizations?
“He has no quality of life now,” I said. “He lost his mind years ago. What are we trying to save?”
I talked and talked and talked, far more than I ordinarily do, louder than usual. As I talked, I tried to examine my own mind and be as honest as possible. I knew there was only one answer: Were he in his right mind, my father wouldn’t want any more treatment. Were I in his place, I wouldn’t want more treatment. I wouldn’t want to sit there, in a strange doctor’s office, with my adult child watching me, seeing I was no longer there, my mind had gone, my control of my bodily functions had vanished. Seeing me stripped of all dignity and quality of life.
The doctor said he would note this all in my father’s record — that he (the doctor) had recommended further treatment and that it had been rejected. I knew he had to do that.
“Just tell me,” I said, “I’m not a terrible person.”
He said no, I wasn’t. He said he sympathized and he understood. I would like to thank him for that. In the midst of a miserable day of struggle and self-recrimination and haunting guilt, he made me feel a little better. The kindness of strangers isn’t merely a brilliant line in a brilliant play. Sometimes, it exists out there when you need it the most.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)