It’s tempting to blame partisan politics for last summer’s debacle over “death panels” and the very idea of doctors and patients holding conversations about the end of life. But the truth is: these conversations are difficult. Although some people welcome them, others approach the subject of death cautiously. Many of us would rather not explore what awaits us in the final years or weeks of life. Perhaps this reluctance explains why only one in five Americans has completed an advance directive for medical care.
One day a few years ago, when I realized that my hair was falling out from chemotherapy treatment, I leaned against a wall and sobbed, “This is too much.” In the silence I heard, “Where does my strength come from?” and I heard myself answer, “From the Lord . . . but this is too much!”
When I began in ministry, I'd enter a hospital room with a bit of trepidation, as if entering a strange and alien land. I wasn't sure what I'd encounter there and how I might respond. I wasn’t used to the sights and sounds and smells—the sight of someone hooked up to a tube, the occasional snoring or groaning of a roommate, the antiseptic smell that sometimes barely conceals the various human smells that infuse the air. I didn’t know the customs of this land either—for instance, whether I should stop praying when a doctor entered the room, or introduce myself to the doctor, or leave the room when the doctor begins the consultation. But now, after 25 years as a pastor, I've been in hundreds of hospital rooms, and they all look familiar.
This past Christmas, I wished for and received a chainsaw. On New Year’s Eve, while I was engaged in a woodworking project, the chainsaw slipped, grabbed my left sleeve, threw me to the ground, and in a matter of seconds dug into my arm, cutting my hand and wrist to the bone for about six inches. I began bleeding profusely.
Eight years ago, shortly before Palm Sunday, our eight-year-old son was under the weather. My husband, Lou, had volunteered to cover the doctor’s appointment and a trip to the drugstore for whatever prescription would clear up Calvin’s little infection. “Go to the gym,” he said. “You need to relieve some stress.”
In the hospital emergency room, someone accidentally bumps into an aide carrying a bedpan, and urine sloshes onto the floor. After several hours of waiting, my mother is finally admitted. I pay for TV, but she does not have the strength to push the buttons on the remote. She can’t find the red button to call the nurse either. She tells me that last night she was taken down to a dungeon where she lay awake in terror. Now she wonders why someone left a black Scottish terrier in the corner of her room.
She died on Sunday, after a month of dateless days that began on Halloween and ended just short of Thanksgiving. We went from the hospice admitting office to a Halloween party in the family room, where volunteers offered us fruit punch, orange cupcakes and orange and black balloons. Three toddlers in identical ladybug suits were dancing on the faux-parquet ballroom floor to the electrically amplified folk songs of a long-haired balladeer.
There was nothing particularly unusual or newsworthy about my father-in-law’s death at age 84. Even so, it was unsettling, given that until his diagnosis of stage four cancer on March 1, he had been living alone in his home and was seemingly healthy—and that despite his doctor’s prognosis of having several months to live, he died after only three more weeks.