December 10, 2016

One Perfect Thing to Say to Someone who Knows they are Dying.


The first time I went to pick up my dad at the independent living center he was standing out front in his Navy Blue sport coat and tie waiting for me.

As time went by, he would be waiting out front leaning on a cane and then, as more time passed, he’d be leaning on his walker.

The cane somehow lent a dapper look to his demeanor, but the walker? Not so much. In fact, it was the walker that made me realize that next he’d be waiting for me in a wheelchair.

How could it have happened so fast? 

How could he age 20 years in the two years since he moved from his home in Phoenix to be closer to one of his children?

“I’m dying, Melanie,” he’d say. “I can feel it.”

I never knew how to respond. I didn’t know why he was telling me or what he wanted from me when he said it.

“You’re not dying, Dad,” was mostly what I ended up saying. But even as the words came out of my mouth I felt like I didn’t believe them.

After all, I was taking care of him now. He wasn’t living alone in a tiny townhouse in a tiny town a couple hundred miles away. He wasn’t relying on some kind of a, “How are you doing this morning, Mr. Siani, this is your well check call?” from a stranger to make sure he was still breathing.

He had me, the daughter who used to work in a hospital, the daughter who “knew the system,” the daughter who could make all the medical decisions that would surely make him better after all.

I just knew that the treatments I chose would work. It was simple, all that I had to do was find the right treatment and the right diagnosis and I would wake up one morning and drive to the care center to pick him up and he’d be standing there again in his navy blue sport coat looking just as good as he did that first time.

No, he would be looking better. 

Still—ignoring my super-powers—he’d say “I’m dying, Melanie.”

Sad to say, but the next thing I knew, he was right.

“If only I’d had more time,” I screamed inside. “If only my will was stronger than his body’s desire to jump into that stupid wheelchair to oblivion and never come back.”

Once some things start on their trajectory, there is no stopping them, and a headlong fall into death is certainly one of them.

Then there was the time that I was able to finally figure out what to say when my father uttered his ominous words.

We were getting into in my van outside my house and he was having a hard time negotiating the whole thing. He was out of breath; the shoes on his swollen feet were so tight he had to leave them untied and he didn’t have the strength in his legs to pull himself up into the passenger seat.

I’d gone around to his side to help him and he put his hand out, stopped me from my efforts, and looked straight at me.

“I’m dying, Melanie.”

It took me all the time from closing his car door to walking around the back of the car to getting into the drivers’ seat, putting the seat belt on and putting the key in the ignition to finally say what needed to be said.

“I know, Dad.”

I looked straight back at him exactly the way he had looked at me a moment before.

“I know you’re dying.”

“Good,” he said.

And I pulled away.

My dad would tell me several times over the period of my life that pretending was for the movies.

“Real life requires the truth,” he’d say, adding that, “it’s always easier to handle.”

When I think of how many times in those few short years before my father died that he’d told me he was dying, and how many times I’d “pretended” that he wasn’t, I understand why he kept saying it.

It’s not that he wanted something back from me that that would make him feel better. It was that he didn’t want to leave me while I was pretending.

He wanted me to admit the truth. It would be easier for me to handle.





Author: Carmelene Siani

Image: Flickr/Dianne Lacourciere

Editor: Travis May

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