My father-in-law passed away this weekend after a long struggle with Alzheimer's when his body (finally, one might say) caught up to his mind. Though I couldn't go to join my wife's family at his bedside, my wife did. She's a better writer than I am, so I'll get out of the way.
I used to think that dying of old age was like falling asleep. You lose all your strength, close your eyes, wait a while, then… done. It's not like that at all. Just like the cliches of birth — where moms are rushed to the hospital upon the first signs of labor and babies come out resembling perfectly formed 3 month olds — what we see and tell ourselves about death has little connection to reality.
My parents died of different causes. My mom, from cancer or chemo (as with any cancer patient, it's impossible to say which), my dad from Alzheimer's. But what struck me when I first saw my dad after he slipped into unconsciousness was how closely he resembled my mom on her last day: his body was bony and colorless; mouth agape and twisted; breaths shallow and forced. You could hear him gasp over the oxygen tank, which is saying something. It was noisy, with plodding, arrhymic but no less robotic bursts. After my mom passed and they took the oxygen mask off, we could see that her mouth was caked with blood. She looked like a skeleton. I didn't recognize her.
One of the hospice workers the night I arrived told us he bet Dad would die within an hour, maybe two. (None of the other hospice workers, who were unbelievably kind, would have said anything nearly so blunt.) Everyone was offended but I secretly appreciated his candor. Having been through this last year with my mom I wasn't sure how long I could hold out watching my father's tortured breaths. My brothers, their wives, and I stayed all through the night holding my dad's hands, watching him breathe, and waiting for him to die.
No one would ever admit it but you end up hoping that each violent contraction will be the last. That this excruciating fight will end. After it's over, we cover this lie with another lie, telling people that he died peacefully so that we don't have to talk about it. But when one suffers from Alzheimer's, "peacefully" means merely "unconscious." I don't have to worry about coming to visit my dad at his nursing home and finding him slumped over a wheelchair or soaking in his urine, his skin so dry it's cracked and bleeding in places.
The idea that anyone would have to go through this for a child is unthinkable. But I couldn't help but think of my son during this process: if losing a parent is so difficult, what must it be like to lose a child? Will my son one day have to go through this for my husband and I? He has no siblings. Would he be alone? Would I want to have him staring at me, this horrific image seared in his brain? My instinct is to spare us all from it, securing some kind of "kill pill" to take when the time comes. I took an epidural when my son was born and have no romance for pure pain or suffering. Is a kill pill similar? Is it cowardly? Or consumerist?
The truth is that if I live as long as my parents with my family intact, I'll be lucky if I need to answer this question.