I guess plenty of grieving people wonder what they could have done differently, wonder if they had done something differently would the dead still be alive. I don’t really think there is anything different I could have or would have done differently with dad. I am not even really sure it is productive to think about, what is done is done and in the past. All the would haves and should haves and could haves are really purposeless. They won’t raise the dead and just cause angst in the living.
But I do think about the lasts. I try to pinpoint the last time I saw or interacted with dad when he was coherent. Dad was only unresponsive for a day or so, and before that he was walking and talking and conversing mostly appropriately. But, the shadows of confusion had been around clouding things for months. He was so good at faking it. So good at convincing everyone around him that things weren’t quite as bad as they were. I’m not really sure when the very last time was when I talked to dad when he was dad. And as I look back, I wonder just how confused he was and for how long. I wonder what he knew, what he didn’t, and how much was just denial hiding things away deep in a psyche that couldn’t face the truth.
The last food he ate or meal I made him. The night he went to the hospital, I force fed him a few bites of frozen beef stew. On Christmas, he ate a bite of the turkey he carved and some shrimp. On Christmas Eve, I made him some fish tacos and he ate a couple bites of Mahi Mahi and some black beans. Two days after Christmas, the last day he was awake, I hear he ate some eggs from the hospital. If I knew it was his last meal, would I have made it more special, with more care, with more love, tend to every detail? Probably not, we could never figure out if or when he was going to eat anything or what he really wanted. My saint of a mom carried a protein shake and Capri sun around to every room of the house for dad to complain about and sip on. She lovingly kept him alive one sip at a time.
The food. Wow, that was such a hurdle. As a hospice nurse, I can’t even tell you the number of times I have had this conversation. The body is shutting down and no longer needs food. Lack of appetite is part of the natural dying process. Excess fluid intake can cause more distressing symptoms at the end of life. It is okay not to eat. No need to force feed someone who doesn’t want to eat. But the other side of the conversation is so much different. How exactly did we know he was dying, when he was so good at faking that he wasn’t? How can you ever know if you are withholding food from a person who might have months or years ahead of him? The doctors were surely no help in guiding us with a prognosis. The glass was always half full in their eyes. Even a clearly dying man might have a chance. Their false hope kept ours alive. And even if we were now focusing on comfort, what is food, if not life’s ultimate comfort?
The last words he spoke. I am not sure what they were. Should we have recorded them, kept them in a book for all time? Somehow I doubt it. The last words I spoke to him. I think might have been I love you, good bye, I’m going to work now.
The last time I asked his advice. The last time I borrowed his wisdom. The last time we laughed together. The last time we worried together. The last time we grilled out or cooked together. The last time we watched TV together. The last time he drove me somewhere in his truck. The last time I drove him anywhere. The last time we went to the beach or listened to music or I rolled my eyes at his black and white world view and not politically correct humor. I don’t know when any of these were. I know he had a good life and we had a good life, and the lasts are really no more important than the firsts or all the in-betweens. The sum of all the actions, I guess that’s all that matters.