Written by Mark McCurdy
I sat across the table from a face that was familiar; one I have been observing for over 50 years of my life. But as he spoke, I listened that Sunday afternoon and studied the lines and creases more closely than I had in years. He appeared thinner and a bit pale since I last saw him. It wasn’t a good kind of thin. It was the kind that comes from the loss of muscle tone, not fat. The lines were deeper on his brow and neck than I remembered. His eyes were a bit sunken and watery as his memories meandered back and forth between times of joy and times of sorrow. It was as if each moment he breathed was carrying him farther from the things he had grown to love and closer to the things he was just learning to love; things previously shrouded in physical and mental suffering.
Conversations with my aging father frequently recycle common threads and as hard as I try, I sometimes find my patience waning as we cover ground that has been covered so frequently that nothing grows there any longer. There are no new reflections or lessons to cultivate. It’s like trying to put away a ghost in a wooden box but forgetting each time that a wooden box can’t contain a ghost. For a moment the ghost is gone from his mind, but then it appears in some new corner and the whole process begins anew.
I thought that was where the conversation was headed when Dad brought up Mom. Mom passed away over nine years ago. Dad began a new thread of discussion by reflecting back on those weeks and months that followed. I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go!’ and I began my own trip down memory lane to a place I really don’t like to visit; the most painful period of my life. As we kids grew older we saw that Dad had an emotional dependency on Mom. Mom, however, did not have the same dependency. I’m not saying Mom didn’t love Dad, or that she did not care for him- she put her heart and soul into caring for Dad. But she had a kind of self-possession that allows one to endure. Growing up, Mom endured great trials, pain, and loss. She was the living embodiment of the saying, ‘what does not kill us, only makes us stronger’. This did not make her unfeeling but a steward of her emotions. She kept her emotional house in order when it came to pain and suffering aimed directly at her. We all knew that if Dad passed first, Mom would be sad, but she had the inner emotional strength and toughness to carry on- Dad’s emotional tether to Mom was much like an umbilical cord. Severing it would be traumatic.
So Dad’s state of devastation after Mom died was not unexpected but it was shocking to actually live through. This was the first moment I ever saw my Dad struck down in agonizing grief and pain; frail and vulnerable. For most of my life, I experienced him as this strong man in command of his faculties in tough situations. In those first days after Mom died Dad was consumed by grief and inconsolable. He seemed very much like a child suffering the loss of a parent. The mental anguish was nearly unbearable for him and it put me and my siblings in a strange place. We had to assume the role of parent and try to console Dad- the man who had helped raise us. It was uncomfortable and strange.
It was at that moment, while I was anticipating another of sad account from Dad, that he took the conversation in a new direction. He said he found out years after Mom’s death that several neighbors had shared amongst themselves that they didn’t think he would survive long without Mom. They were certain he would die of a broken heart or end his life. Their fears weren’t totally unfounded. I saw Dad, first hand, express how he couldn’t handle the pain and that he just wanted it to end. He didn’t want to live without Mom. Everything in the home reminded him of her; and remembering brought him back to the harsh reality of her permanent absence. When those waves of pain came over him it was as though an invisible knife was piercing his heart. There were rifles and shotguns in the house- just as you will find in most farm houses. When Dad started to speak that way the guns were removed. While none of us thought Dad was intending suicide, he was in so much pain that we took no chances.
As I listened and watched, Dad continued. His eyes were a little tearier but there was the hint of a smile- this was something new. He had something inside and it was important to him that I hear it. Yes, he recounted, in those first few years after Mom passed, he could not envision life ever being joyful again. He could not imagine ever wanting to live again, let alone being happy without Mom in his life. But the loss of Mom wasn’t all that weighed him down.
Dad suffered severe ankle injuries and has lost most of his mobility beginning a few years before Mom died. And it has gotten much worse over time. Dad eventually could not get outside and do the work around the farm he enjoyed, or simply get outside and enjoy the outdoors. He remains confined largely inside the house- a seeming prisoner in his own home. With all his serious ailments, a widower for nine years and unable to do the things that brought him joy and a sense of accomplishment, I have worried that he might be suffering most of the time in deep depression. But Dad continued sharing and I was amazed what was coming from those teary eyes and soft smile.
He said he was happy, even though he never dreamed he would be again. He has all he needs and he is pleased with how his children and their families have turned out. Each day he derives simple pleasure from small things. He can still do laundry, with some help, and he likes to keep the house clean. In nice weather he’ll manage his way onto an old lawn mower and take a short drive from the house to look over part of the farm. He likes to cook, again with a little help. He enjoys the challenge of tweaking his favorite recipes in search of something even tastier. On top of the chronic ankle pain, the inability to walk or stand but for a moment, Dad also has celiac disease and has to watch very carefully what he eats. He’s landed in the doctor’s office several times after eating something with just a minute amount of gluten.
There was no magic to Dad’s turn around; no get well quick recipe. He started with grief counseling and developing friendships. It helped that, for a while, he was able to be physically active, though he’s lost most of that. Good healthcare has definitely been important in helping him control depression, high blood pressure, and severe chronic pain. And receiving frequent visits from family and a retired nurse give him human contact and time for conversation. All these things have contributed to a positive turn in Dad’s outlook.
I was feeling a sense of relief as Dad brought the moment to a close. He said, “You know, back then (when Mom died) I couldn’t imagine being happy again or looking forward to each new day, but if I had given up when your mother passed away I would have missed out on so much. I guess God had a lot more for me to work out.” Then his smile grew very wide and I could see a new thought entering his mind as he added, “I guess He still does!” Then Dad broke out into a laugh and his teary eyes twinkled. I’m sure mine did as well.
Written by Mark McCurdy
Physician-Assisted Suicide legislation was introduced last session in the state of Iowa. We were fortunate that it never passed out of sub-committee. They have, however, vowed to bring this up again next session and also push the issue via the court system. In the story above, had physician-assisted suicide been legal in Iowa, Mr. McCurdy’s father might have considered this option given his depression and own physical suffering. Wanting to die because of depression is treatable. Millions of people are living proof of that fact.
Suicide bills are never the answer for anyone and add to the culture of death in our society. It is a recipe for disaster with no safeguards that will ever work. IFL is committed to educate on end of life issues and combatting the idea that suicide is health care- it is not. We must fight to protect the vulnerable people who are older, disabled or terminally ill from this threat.
Iowans for LIFE