In case any of you are new to BPFL, or happened to miss it, my father died on October 2nd.
It was an expected event, as I will explain; and although I miss him, I am glad his long suffering is over.
You may be thinking, but she said in her title that he outlived death.
Let me explain.
I have written before, somewhere or other, of the nights when I would come to visit him, from undergraduate school or medical school or work somewhere out West, and we would sit up long after my mother had said her good-nights in her short thin nightgowns that make me blush. I have never liked to expose my body parts, not out of religious prudery but from sheer terror of exposure. But I digress.
Dad and I had a lot to discuss in those days. He called it “talking philosophy,” but it was really his way of being my teacher, guiding me through the process of critical thinking, of Devil’s Advocacy, hypotheticals–he would have made a good lawyer, except that he had a conscience and that was problematic.
Truth be known, he had always secretly wanted to be a medical doctor, so he lived that part of his life vicariously through me.
Our late-night philosophy-fests always featured a liquor bottle: either Dickel (Tennessee corn likker) or Dewar’s Scotch, depending on our taste and what there was.
One night waxed into three A.M. and we were both high as kites, and he says,
“Promise me something. I mean, really promise me something.”
“Promise you what, Dad?”
“Promise me, and I mean really promise me, that if I get to where I can’t wipe my own ass, that you will shoot me and put me out of my misery.”
He did not own a gun “because if I had one I might use it,” he would say with a darkly suggestive rise of the left eyebrow. I was never quite sure whether he would be tempted to use it on my mother or himself, but the situation was moot because he did not have a gun.
I, on the other hand, had a couple of guns at the time, a .22 caliber Ruger assassination pistol, which I still own, and a lovely child’s shotgun. The latter always made me squirm, to think that a century ago and even more recently, people taught their 10-and-12-year-old children to shoot a highly destructive weapon like a shotgun.
I was caught between a rock and a hard place, Psylla and Charybdis, all of those really tight spots, you know, and I was, of course, obliged to tell him yes even though I fervently meant no. This was no drunken demand. He really meant it. The part about not wanting to live if someone else had to wipe his ass.
We all thought he was doomed to perish in the course of his work as a ceramic artist: so many ways to keel over face first in the spinning clay, or burn up in the heat of the kiln and make an ash of himself.
None of that happened. Instead he got about ten years of his brain and body being whittled away, subtly at first, then galloping along with each day reaching inexorable claws and ripping out some other vital function. It wasn’t long before indeed he could not wipe his own ass.
Always the teacher, he accepted this new indignity with much more grace than I would have had.
He was about 88 when this happened. Things tumbled down from there. Eating became problematic because his hands had ceased to function, so he had to be fed a lot of the time; or else I had to guide his utensil to his mouth, and he might get half of it in if we were working well together.
As you can see, I never did shoot him.
He did make some inquiries regarding how much of his insulin it would take to kill himself, and also about what would happen if he just stopped taking his insulin. But in the end he did not really want to die by his own hand, or else he was too afraid. In any case he managed to live until he died.
He outwitted death by about two miserable, agonizing, humiliating years. He lived right up until the moment that he died.
And wouldn’t you know it, his last request was for something I absolutely cannot do. He made me promise, though. Promise me you’ll….
Well, I think he knows what I can truly promise, and what I can’t.
But as far as he and I are concerned, he cheated certain death by two years, and that’s something.