We let our 94-year-old father die, and I'm haunted by our choice
Would he have made the same choice? We’ll never know
This First Person article is the experience of Glenn Mori who lives in Vancouver. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
We let my father die.
It was a decision that my siblings and I made. Or, we didn't stop it. We let it happen.
My father's health had been deteriorating for years. His hearing was almost gone, and he required floor to ceiling poles in all his rooms to get into and out of his motorized wheelchair. But he was not unhappy. After my mother passed, he filled his days with meals in the dining hall of his retirement home, and Blue Jays and high-stakes poker via closed captioning.
In May, he had a fall, likely while getting into or out of his wheelchair. He had fallen before, but this time he lost the ability to eat and he phased in and out of reality. He thought the hospital was a hotel and asked my sister if she had money. "It shouldn't be too much," Dad had said. "Maybe $80." My brother explained Dad's circumstances on a notepad, but Dad read it and looked away.
The doctors believed the eating problem was neurological. They could insert a feeding tube, but he would probably never be able to live without it. Without food, he might live another week — or they could remove the intravenous (IV) fluid and he would pass within 48 hours.
My father had a DNR — a do not resuscitate medical order — instructing doctors to not perform CPR if he stopped breathing or his heart failed. No extraordinary measures.
But a feeding tube and fluids are not extraordinary measures.
The doctors told us we had to decide. I don't know if it's the choice he would have wanted us to make. It was the choice the doctors seemed to be guiding us toward. We decided to allow his life to slip away without his clear say in the matter.
During the move to a private room, his IV became disconnected. Aware that it was scheduled to be removed, the hospital staff did not reconnect it. When my wife and daughter and I arrived at Kelowna General Hospital, my father seemed to recognize us but didn't say anything. My sister dipped a stick with a red fuzzy tip into a cup of water and wet his lips for him.
My father passed away that night.
Funeral homes do not make the deceased too lifelike to help with closure — that's what we were told when we were planning the service. We opted for a closed casket, but I have been to both sorts of funerals and have experienced no difference in terms of closure.
But the day after Dad passed, we went to empty his apartment and I almost expected to find him there. And weeks later, removing the last items for donation, I would not have been surprised to find him in his wheelchair, wondering where his things were.
I am the eldest of four. I was never close to Dad. I left Kelowna, B.C., for college right after high school, and though I returned for varying lengths of time, my connection with my father never increased. Gradually, he acknowledged me as an independent adult, especially after my daughter was born. Dad would often sit on the floor and play dolls with his granddaughters and my mother said, "He was never like that with you kids" — a touch of wonder in her voice. But, despite my distance from my father, I was unable to let go.
Was it my guilt, my uncertainty that he was ready to let go? Or did I have some guilt that we were never close? Or was it the fear that my mother, father, all the people who raised me are gone and I have no protection? Or that as the eldest sibling, I'm next?
I am angry — not at my father, his failing body, or at the doctors — but at the circumstances. I am angry because my siblings and I had to make a life-or-death decision for our father, who was not in pain and not suffering from any identified terminal illness, the decision to deny him any chance for another season of his Blue Jays.
Guilt and fear and confusion and anger. That combination is the basis for ghost stories. That cocktail of emotions tethered his presence to my subconscious and haunted me.
When our 18-year-old cat lost control of her hind legs, we made the decision that it was time for her to move on. When our elderly dog began having seizures, we did the same. But I have never made that decision for a human. The enormity of it, even for a 94-year-old in deteriorating health, was more than I understood. It hit me harder and stuck longer than I expected. It required time and reflection before I could create space to accept it.
We let him die, and I need to live with it.
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