Preparing for the death of a loved one is difficult no matter the circumstances.
But Annalisia Wilharm said she never expected a doctor would deliver the bad news about her grandfather via a video screen on a robot.
Wilharm was sitting by her grandfather’s bedside in the ICU of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fremont, California, last Monday night when the machine rolled into their room and a doctor, appearing via live video link, offered his grim prognosis. Her grandfather Ernest Quintana, 78, died the next day.
“I think they should have had more dignity and treated him better than they did,” Wilharm told CNN. “No granddaughter, no family member should have to go through what I just did with him.”
Wilharm told CNN her family knew that her grandfather would die soon. But they’re angered by the way the situation was handled and how the news was delivered. She said she and her family hope no one else receives the same treatment.
“I was so scared for him and disappointed with the delivery,” Wilharm said, choking up. “And I could tell by the look on his face what that did to him.”
A spokeswoman for the hospital offered “sincere condolences to the family” in a statement sent to CNN.
“We take this very seriously and have reached out to the family to discuss their concerns,” said Michelle Gaskill-Hames, a senior vice president and area manager of Kaiser Permanente Greater Southern Alameda County.
“Our physicians and nurses were in regular, in-person communication with the patient and family about his condition from the moment he entered our hospital,” she added. “The evening video tele-visit was a follow-up to earlier physician visits — it did not replace previous conversations with patient and family members and was not used in the delivery of the initial diagnosis.”
For years, Quintana had lived with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive lung disease that make makes it hard to breathe. It includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Last Monday, doctors at the hospital conducted tests to assess the state of Quintana’s lungs. That evening, Wilharm told her mother and grandmother — Quintana’s wife of 58 years — that the pair should go home and get some rest.
Soon after a robot with a video screen came into the room, accompanied by a nurse who remained silent. A doctor on the screen began speaking to them.
Wilharm said she had no idea who the doctor was or where he was located.
She filmed the interaction on her phone as the doctor relayed the results of her grandfather’s tests.
In the footage viewed by CNN, the doctor on the screen tells Quintana, “Unfortunately there’s nothing we can treat very effectively.”
The doctor explains they can give Quintana morphine to make him more comfortable, but that would make breathing more difficult.
Wilharm then tells her grandfather the doctor is recommending hospice care at home.
“You know, I don’t know if he’s going to get home,” the doctor says, adding that the best treatment plan at that point was to begin focusing on Quintana’s comfort.
Wilharm told CNN that at that point she had to call her mother and grandmother so they could get back to the hospital.
“It didn’t matter (to the hospital) that his wife of 58 years wasn’t there for that,” she said.
Wilharm told CNN that her family was under no illusions about her grandfather’s condition.
“We knew that we were going to lose him,” Wilharm told CNN in a phone interview Saturday. “Our point is the delivery (of the news). There was no compassion.”
When her grandmother returned to the hospital, she asked the nurses about the robot. According to Wilharm, they explained the hospital was small and the robot was used to make rounds at night.
Gaskill-Hames, the hospital spokeswoman, said the health care provider is “continuously learning how best to integrate technology into patient interactions.”
“In every aspect of our care, and especially when communicating difficult information, we do so with compassion in a personal manner,” she said, adding that the term “robot” is “inaccurate and inappropriate.”
“This secure video technology is a live conversation with a physician using tele-video technology, and always with a nurse or other physician in the room to explain the purpose and function of the technology,” Gaskill-Hames added. It “allows a small hospital to have additional specialists such as a board-certified critical care physician available 24/7, enhancing the care provided and bringing additional consultative expertise to the bedside.”
Wilharm told CNN that a doctor had visited Quintana in person earlier in the day.
Wilharm said the in-person doctor was “very sweet” and held her grandfather’s hand as she spoke with him about hospice care and his options.
Gaskill-Hames said the hospital does not encourage the use of technology to replace personal interactions between patients and health care workers.
“We understand how important this is for all concerned, and regret that we fell short of the family’s expectations,” she said.
“That was one of the worst days of my life,” she said.
Last summer, six months before my mother died, I walked into her bedroom, and she greeted me with tinny hello and a big smile. She then resumed a conversation with her mother – who had died in 1973.
“Where are you?” Mom asked, as though Grandma, a onetime Fifth Avenue milliner, was on one of her many European hat-buying junkets. As I stood there dumbstruck, Mom continued chatting – in a young girl’s voice, no less – for several more minutes. Was this a reaction to medication, a sign of advancing dementia? Or was she preparing to “transition” to wherever she was going next?
Regardless, Mom was freaking me out – as well as my brother, sister and father.
As it turned out, my mother’s chat with a ghost was a signal that the end was inching closer. Those who work with terminally ill people, such as social workers and hospice caregivers, call these episodes or visions a manifestation of what is called Nearing Death Awareness.
“They are very common among dying patients in hospice situations,” Rebecca Valla, a psychiatrist in Winston-Salem, N.C., who specializes in treating terminally ill patients, wrote in an email. “Those who are dying and seem to be in and out of this world and the ‘next’ one often find their deceased loved ones present, and they communicate with them. In many cases, the predeceased loved ones seem (to the dying person) to be aiding them in their ‘transition’ to the next world.”
While family members are often clueless about this phenomenon, at least at the outset, a small 2014 study of hospice patients concluded that “most participants” reported such visions and that as these people “approached death, comforting dreams/visions of the deceased became more prevalent.”
Jim May, a licensed clinical social worker in Durham, North Carolina, said that family members – and patients themselves – are frequently surprised by these deathbed visitors, often asking him to help them understand what is happening. “I really try to encourage people, whether it’s a near-death experience or a hallucination, to just go with the flow,” May explained after I told him about my mom’s visitations. “Whatever they are experiencing is real to them.”
Valla agreed, telling me what not to do: “Minimize, dismiss or, worse, pathologize these accounts, which is harmful and can be traumatic” to the dying person. In fact, May said, “most patients find the conversations to be comforting.”
That certainly appeared to be the case with my mother, who had happy exchanges with several good friends, who, like my grandmother, were no longer living.
In a moving 2015 TED talk, Christopher Kerr, the chief medical officer at the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care in Buffalo, showed a clip of one his terminally ill patients discussing her deathbed visions, which included her saying, “My mom and dad, my uncle, everybody I knew that was dead was there (by my side). I remember seeing every piece of their face.” She was lucid and present.
Since Mom had already been diagnosed with advanced dementia, I originally thought her talks were a sign of worsening illness. In fact, current research posits that a combination of physiological, pharmacological and psychological explanations may be at play. That’s exactly what May’s hands-on experience of more than 14 years revealed to him, too.
May acknowledged that it’s understandably “hard to have empirical evidence” for such episodes in patients, but that it’s important for family members and health professionals to figure out how to respond
Last fall, another visit to Mom raised the stakes. As before, she greeted me by name and spoke coherently for several minutes before she turned to the bookcase near her bed and began cooing to an imagined baby. I watched in astonishment as Mom gitchi-gitchi-goo-ed to an apparition she referred to as “her” baby.
“My baby is very sick,” she repeated, clearly deeply concerned about this apparition. “She’s very thirsty. She’s hungry. She’s crying. Can’t you do anything for her?”
I didn’t know what to do. Neither did my siblings or Dad. I had long stopped “correcting” Mom. A year earlier, Mom had regaled me with the story that my niece Anna had made a delicious dinner the night before and was at that very moment out doing errands. In fact, Anna was away at college; also, I’ve never seen her cook, and she doesn’t even have a driver’s license. But why contradict Mom’s vision of a perfect granddaughter?
Social worker May, when asked about these sorts of imaginings, put it this way: “Don’t argue, because an argument is not what they need.” I decided to go along with the “baby” story and told Mom I was going to take the baby to the kitchen to bottle-feed her, which alleviated the crisis.
As the fall days grew shorter, Mom’s “baby” was a continuing presence at my visits, with my mother becoming increasingly distressed. I would settle things down by giving the imagined infant an imaginary bottle, or cradle her in my arms and leave the room for a while, saying I was taking her to the doctor. At one point I asked gently, “Mom, do you think the baby is you?” She didn’t miss a beat. “Yes,” she replied. “The baby is hurting.”
In fact, the largest study to date on deathbed visions reported on numerous cases when the “arrival of … a visitor appeared to arouse anxiety and intensify death fear.”
But what to do? I hated that Mom’s level of distress was skyrocketing in what turned out to be her final weeks. I simply held Mom’s hands a bit tighter and tried to distract her as best I could with family and political news. Oh, and I cooked, which she loved my doing.
One evening I made a simple dinner: spaghetti with a store-bought marinara sauce and a bright green leafy salad. Mom had pretty much stopped eating by this point, which is common as the end draws near, but she made a show of trying her best with this repast for the two of us, plus my father. It was heartbreaking to watch her try to spear the pasta, but she managed several hearty mouthfuls, saving room for a scoop of Sealtest vanilla ice cream.
After dinner, I helped her back to bed, where she exclaimed: “How did you know?” “How did I know what?” I asked. “That was exactly how I wanted my funeral to be. You invited all my favorite people, and the food was just what I would have ordered.”
She was beaming. Six weeks later, she passed – and pasta and salad were on the menu at her service.
If someone you love has died in a hospital, you may have seen modern death at its worst: overly medicalized, impersonal, and filled with unnecessary suffering. The experience can be a bitter lesson in Buddha’s most basic teaching: the more we try to avoid suffering (including death), the worse we often make it.
Even though roughly half of Americans die in hospitals and other institutions, most of us yearn to die at home, and perhaps to experience our leavetaking as a sacred rite of passage rather than a technological flail. You don’t have to be a saint, or be wealthy, or have a Rolodex of influential names to die well. But you do need to prepare. It helps to be a member of at least one “tribe,” to have someone who cares deeply about you, and to have doctors who tell you necessary truths so that you can decide when to stop aggressive treatment and opt for hospice care. Then those who care for you can arrange the basics: privacy, cleanliness, and quiet, the removal of beeping technologies, and adequate pain control. They can listen and express their love, and provide the hands-on bedside care hospice doesn’t cover.
From then on, a more realistic hope for our caregivers, and for ourselves when we are dying, may not be an idealized “good death” by a well-behaved patient, but a “good enough death,” where we keep the dying as comfortable and pain-free as possible, and leave room for the beautiful and the transcendent—which may or may not occur.
Hospice professionals often warn against high expectations. Things will probably not go as planned, and there comes a point when radical acceptance is far more important than goal-oriented activity. They don’t like the idea, inherent in some notions of the “good death,” of expecting the dying to put on a final ritual performance for the living, one marked by beautiful last words, final reconciliations, philosophical acceptance of the coming of death, lack of fear, and a peaceful letting go.
“I don’t tell families at the outset that their experience can be life-affirming, and leave them with positive feelings and memories,” said hospice nurse Jerry Soucy. “I say instead that we’re going to do all we can to make the best of a difficult situation, because that’s what we confront. The positive feelings sometimes happen in the moment, but are more likely to be of comfort in the days and months after a death.” This is what it took, and how it looked, for the family of John Masterson.
John was an artist and sign painter, the ninth of ten children born to a devout Catholic couple in Davenport, Iowa. His mother died when he was 8, and he and two of his sisters spent nearly a year in an orphanage. He moved to Seattle in his twenties, earned a black belt in karate, started a sign-painting business, and converted to Nichiren Shoshu, the branch of Buddhism whose primary practice is chanting. He never left his house without intoning three times in Japanese Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (“I Honor the Impeccable Teachings of the Lotus Sutra”).
He was 57 and living alone, without health insurance, when he developed multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. He didn’t have much money: he was the kind of person who would spend hours teaching a fellow artist how to apply gold leaf, while falling behind on his paid work. But thanks to his large extended family, his karate practice, and his fierce dedication to his religion, he was part of several tribes. He was devoted to his three children—each the result of a serious relationship with a different woman—and they loved him equally fiercely. His youngest sister, Anne, a nurse who had followed him to Seattle, said he had “an uncanny ability to piss people off but make them love him loyally forever.”
When he first started feeling exhausted and looking gaunt, John tried to cure himself with herbs and chanting. By the time Anne got him to a doctor, he had a tumor the size of a half grapefruit protruding from his breastbone. Myeloma is sometimes called a “smoldering” cancer, because it can lie dormant for years. By the time John’s was diagnosed, his was in flames.
Huge plasma cells were piling up in his bone marrow, while other rogue blood cells dissolved bone and dumped calcium into his bloodstream, damaging his kidneys and brain function. He grew too weak and confused to work or drive. Bills piled up and his house fell into foreclosure. Anne, who worked the evening shift at a local hospital, moved him into her house and drove him to various government offices to apply for food stamps, Social Security Disability, and Medicaid. She would frequently get up early to stand in line outside social services offices with his paperwork in a portable plastic file box.
Medicaid paid for the drug thalidomide, which cleared the calcium from John’s bloodstream and helped his brain and kidneys recover. A blood cancer specialist at the University of Washington Medical Center told him that a bone marrow transplant might buy him time, perhaps even years. But myeloma eventually returns; the transplant doesn’t cure it. The treatment would temporarily destroy his immune system, could kill him, and would require weeks of recovery in sterile isolation. John decided against it, and was equally adamant that he’d never go on dialysis.
After six months on thalidomide, John recovered enough to move into a government-subsidized studio apartment near Pike Place Market. He loved being on his own again and wandered the market making videos of street musicians, which he’d post on Facebook. But Anne now had to drive across town to shop, cook, and clean for him.
The health plateau lasted more than a year. But by the fall of 2010, John could no longer bear one of thalidomide’s most difficult side effects, agonizing neuropathic foot pain. When he stopped taking the drug, he knew that calcium would once again build up in his bloodstream, and that he was turning toward his death.
An older sister and brother flew out from Iowa to help Anne care for him. One sibling would spend the night, and another, or John’s oldest daughter, Keely, a law student, would spend the day.
Christmas came and went. His sister Irene returned to Iowa and was replaced by another Iowa sister, Dottie, a devout Catholic. In early January, John developed a urinary tract infection and became severely constipated and unable to pee. Anne took him to the University of Washington Medical Center for what turned out to be the last time. His kidneys were failing and his bones so eaten away by disease that when he sneezed, he broke several ribs. Before he left the hospital, John met with a hematologist, a blood specialist, who asked Anne to step briefly out of the room.
Anne does not know exactly what was said. But most UW doctors are well trained in difficult conversations, thanks to a morally responsible institutional culture on end-of-life issues. Doctors at UW do not simply present patients with retail options, like items on a menu, and expect them to blindly pick. Its doctors believe they have an obligation to use their clinical experience to act in their patients’ best interests, and they are not afraid of making frank recommendations against futile and painful end-of-life treatments. When the meeting was over, the doctor told Anne that her brother “wanted to let nature take its course.” He would enroll in hospice. Anne drove him home.
John knew he was dying. He told Anne that he wanted to “feel everything” about the process, even the pain. He took what she called “this Buddhist perspective that if he suffered he would wipe out his bad karma. I said, ‘Nah, that’s just bullshit. You’ve done nothing wrong. The idea that we’re sinners or have to suffer is ludicrous.’” She looked her brother in the eye. She knew she was going to be dispensing his medications when he no longer could, and she wasn’t going to let him suffer. She told him, ‘You’re not going to have a choice.’”
Anne said she “set an intention”: not to resist her brother’s dying, but to give him the most gentle death possible and to just let things unfold. On January 15, her birthday, she and John and a gaggle of other family members walked down to Pike Place Market to get a coffee and celebrate. John was barely able to walk: Anne kept close to him so that she could grab him if he fell. It was the last time he left the house.
The next morning, a Sunday, while Anne was sitting with John at his worktable, he looked out the window and asked her, “Do you think I’ll die today?” Anne said, “Well, Sundays are good days to die, but no, I don’t think it’s today.” It was the last fully coherent conversation she had with him.
He spent most of his last nine days in bed, as his kidneys failed and he grew increasingly confused. He didn’t seem afraid, but he was sometimes grumpy. He had increasing difficulty finding words and craved celery, which he called “the green thing.” He would ask Anne to take him to the bathroom, and then forget what he was supposed to do there. His daughter Keely took a leave of absence from law school, and Anne did the same from her job at the hospital. Fellow artists, fellow chanters, former students to whom he’d taught karate, nephews, nieces, and sign-painting clients visited, and Anne would prop him up on pillows to greet them.
Anne managed things, but with a light hand. She didn’t vet visitors, and they came at all hours. If she needed to change his sheets or turn him, she would ask whoever was there to help her, and show them how. That way, she knew that other people were capable of caring for him when she wasn’t there. “The ones that have the hardest time [with death] wring their hands and think they don’t know what to do,” she said. “But we do know what to do. Just think: If it were my body, what would I want? One of the worst things, when we’re grieving, is the sense that I didn’t do enough,” she said. “But if you get in and help, you won’t have that sense of helplessness.”
Each day John ate and spoke less and slept more, until he lost consciousness and stopped speaking entirely. To keep him from developing bedsores, Anne would turn him from one side to the other every two hours, change his diaper if necessary, and clean him, with the help of whoever was in the room. He’d groan when she moved him, so about a half an hour beforehand, she’d crush morphine and Ativan pills, mix them with water as the hospice nurse had showed her, and drip them into John’s mouth.
One morning her distraught brother Steve accused her of “killing” John by giving him too much morphine—a common fear among relatives, who sometimes can’t bear to up the dose as pain gets worse. At that moment, the hospice nurse arrived by chance, and calmly and gently explained to Steve, “Your brother is dying, and this is what dying looks like.”
The death was communal. People flowed in and out, night and day, talking of what they loved about John and things that annoyed them, bringing food, flowers, candles, and photographs until John’s worktable looked like a crowded altar. Buddhists lit incense and chanted. Someone set up a phone tree, someone else made arrangements with a funeral home, and one of the Buddhists planned the memorial service.
Most of the organizing, however, fell to Anne. It may take a village to die well, but it also takes one strong person willing to take ownership—the human equivalent of the central pole holding up a circus tent. In the final two weeks, she was in almost superhuman motion. She leaned in, she said, “into an element of the universe that knows more than I know. I was making it up as I went along. People contributed and it became very rich.
“That’s not to say there weren’t times when it was phenomenally stressful. I was dealing with all the logistics, and with my own mixed emotions about my brother. I was flooded with memories of our very complicated relationship, and at the same time I knew my intention was that he be laid to rest in the most gentle way possible.”
Hospice was a quiet support in the background. Over the two years of his illness, John’s care had perfectly integrated the medical and the practical, shifting seamlessly from prolonging his life and improving his functioning— as thalidomide and the doctors at UW had done—to relieving his suffering and attending his dying, as the hospice nurses and those who loved him had done.
There were no demons under the bed or angels above the headboard. Nor were there beeping monitors and high-tech machines. His dying was labor-intensive, as are most home deaths, and it was not without conflict.
A few days before he died, two siblings beseeched Anne to call a priest to give John last rites in the Catholic church. “It was a point of love for my siblings. They were concerned that John was going to burn in hell,” Anne said. “But John hated priests.” In tears, Anne called the Seattle church that handled such requests, and the priest, after a brief conversation, asked her to put her sister Dottie on the phone. Yes, Dottie acknowledged, John was a Buddhist. No, he hadn’t requested the sacraments. Yes, his children were adamantly opposed. No, the priest told her, under the circumstances he couldn’t come. It wasn’t John’s wish.
Ten days after the family’s last walk through Pike Place Market, the hospice nurse examined John early one morning and said, “He won’t be here tomorrow.” She was seeing incontrovertible physical signs: John’s lips and fingertips were blue and mottled. He hadn’t opened his eyes in days. His breathing was labored and irregular, but still oddly rhythmic, and he looked peaceful. The hospice nurse left. Anne, helped by John’s daughter Keely and his sister Dottie, washed and turned John and gave him his meds. Then they sat by his side. Anne had her hand on his lap.
“It was January in Seattle,” Anne said. “The sun was coming through the window and we could hear the market below beginning to wake up. We were just the three of us, talking and sharing our stories about him and the things we loved and didn’t love, the things that had pissed us off but now we laughed about. I can’t ever, in words, express the sweetness of that moment.
“He just had this one-room apartment with a little half-wall before the kitchen. I walked over to put water on to make coffee, and Keely said, ‘His breathing’s changed.’”Anne stopped, ran over, sat on the bed, and lifted her brother to a sitting position. He was light. She held him close, and during his last three breaths she chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, as her brother had always done, three times, whenever he left his house. “I was really almost mouth-to-mouth chanting, and he died in my arms,” she said. “We just held him, and then my sister Dottie said her prayers over him.”
Anne sat next to her brother and said, “John, I did well.”
“I know he would not have been able to orchestrate it any better than how it unfolded,” she said.
“It was a profound experience for me. I realized what a good death could be.”
In 2016, a small group of doctors gathered in a Seattle conference room to find a better way to help people die. They included physicians at the forefront of medical aid in dying—the practice of providing terminal patients with a way to end their own life. And they were there because the aid-in-dying movement had recently run into a problem. The two lethal medications used by most patients for decades had suddenly become either unavailable or prohibitively expensive. When doctors briefly tried a substitute, some patients had rare but troubling experiences.
The Seattle group hoped to discover a different drug. But the practicalities of aid in dying, a controversial policy still illegal in most of the United States, are not like those in other medical fields. “There’s lots of data on stuff that helps people live longer, but there’s very little data on how to kill people,” says Terry Law, a participant at the meeting and one of the most frequently used aid-in-dying doctors in the U.S.
Seven states—including Hawaii, where a law took effect on January 1—and the District of Columbia now allow doctors to write lethal prescriptions for qualifying, mentally capable adults who have a terminal illness. And support for the practice has gained new national momentum after the widely publicized death of Brittany Maynard, a young cancer patient who moved to Oregon in 2014 to take advantage of that state’s aid-in-dying law.
But the public remains deeply conflicted about the laws—as does the medical community itself. No medical association oversees aid in dying, and no government committee helps fund the research. In states where the practice is legal, state governments provide guidance about which patients qualify, but say nothing about which drugs to prescribe. “Nowhere in the laws is there any sort of guidance for how to do it. There is no oversight to make sure that it’s happening in a safe way, apart from annual reports and kind of a face-value annual hearing,” says Laura Petrillo, a palliative-care physician who opposes legalized aid in dying.
The meeting of the 2016 group set in motion research that would lead the recipe for one of the most widely used aid-in-dying drugs in the United States. But the doctors’ work has taken place on the margins of traditional science. Despite their principled intentions, it’s a part of medicine that’s still practiced in the shadows.
On the surface, figuring out protocols for hastening death doesn’t seem complicated. Lonny Shavelson, a California physician who specializes in aid in dying, says that when he explains to patients it might take an hour or more for them to die, they’re often shocked. They tell him, “When I put down my dog, it took 10 minutes,” he says.
But veterinarians can use lethal injections on pets. In the U.S., aid-in-dying drugs must be ingested by the patient. The first proposed aid-in-dying law in Washington State would have allowed physicians to inject medications, but that legislation failed to pass. In 2008, a modified law was voted in, with an added requirement that patients self-ingest to help protect them from the possibility of family coercion.
For years, the two barbiturates widely considered the best drugs for hastening death in terminally ill patients were secobarbital and pentobarbital. These medications were painless, fast-acting, and relatively affordable. But since 2015, they’ve been largely unavailable. U.S. pharmacies stopped carrying pentobarbital approved for human use, and the price of secobarbital doubled from an already historic high after Valeant Pharmaceuticals (today known as Bausch Health) bought the manufacturing rights. A few years ago, a lethal dose cost about $200 or $300; now it can cost $3,500 or more.
To help patients who could no longer afford the drug, aid-in-dying groups sought a fix. In Washington, an advocacy organization called End of Life Washington briefly advised prescribing a drug mixture with the sedative chloral hydrate to about 70 patients. “We know this is going to put you to sleep, and we’re pretty sure it’s going to kill you,” Robert Wood, a medical director at the organization, says they told the patients. It worked, but with a tragic catch: In a few cases, the chloral hydrate burned people’s throats, causing severe pain just at the time they expected relief.
The End of Life gathering was born out of the need for a better solution. Wood enlisted three others affiliated with End of Life Washington: Law, its president; Tom Preston, a former medical director; and Carol Parrot, a retired anesthesiologist who, like Law, is one of the most experienced aid-in-dying doctors in the U.S. Others joined that meeting or later ones by telephone: a toxicologist in Iowa, a veterinarian, a pharmacologist, another anesthesiologist. The group had three main criteria, Parrot says: They wanted “a drug that would: number one, put a patient to sleep and keep them asleep; and, number two, make sure there was no pain involved; and number three, ensure that they would die, and, hopefully, die relatively quickly.” Plus, it had to be cheap. They aimed for $500 a dose.
The doctors considered a malaria medicine known to be lethal in large doses, but read that it caused severe muscle spasms in some patients. They discussed the synthetic opioid fentanyl, but were deterred by the drug’s newness and dangerous reputation. So the group decided to use a combination of medications, and eventually settled on high doses of three: morphine, diazepam—also known by its early brand name, Valium—and propranolol, a beta-blocker that slows the heart. They called the mixture DMP.
Next, the group had to test the drug. But they still didn’t have a way to follow standard procedure: There would be no government-approved clinical drug trial, and no Institutional Review Board oversight when they prescribed the concoction to patients. The doctors took what precautions they could. Patients could opt in or out, and for the first 10 deaths, either Parrot or Law would stay by the bedside and record patients’ and families’ responses.
The first two deaths went smoothly. But the third patient, an 81-year-old with prostate cancer, took 18 hours to die, Parrot says. In Oregon, where aid in dying has been legal for 20 years, the median time from taking the medication until death is 25 minutes. Patients themselves typically become unconscious in five or 10 minutes, so they are not affected by protracted times, Parrot, Wood, and Law all emphasize. But longer waiting periods can be nerve-racking for families and other caregivers, especially in the exceptional cases where these have persisted for a day or more.
Parrot and Law halted the DMP trial. The informal research group met again, this time by teleconference, and Law dug through the literature and found an article about people who purposely overdosed on digoxin, a cardiac drug. The group added it to the prescription, and the drug became DDMP.
At first, Parrot gave patients latitude in how they took this new drug combination. “One guy chugged a half a cup of Bailey’s Irish Cream, his favorite thing, after he had his medicine,” she says. “He probably took five or six hours to die.” She suspects that the fat particles in the Bailey’s slowed his gastric emptying. So the researchers checked in with each other again, and decided to increase the doses to what Parrot calls “blue-whale-sized doses.” They dubbed the modified formula DDMP2.
The drug is not a perfect aid-in-dying solution. Secobarbital is faster-acting and remains the drug of choice when patients can afford it, Wood says. Just as in the case of the barbiturates, a few outlier patients on DDMP2 take hours longer to die. And the mixture tastes extremely bitter. “Imagine taking two bottles of aspirin, crushing it up, and mixing it in less than half a cup of water or juice,” Parrot says.
Still, DDMP2 has become the low-cost solution the Seattle group set out to discover. In 2017, secobarbital was still the most commonly prescribed drug in Washington and Oregon, but in Colorado, DDMP2 was more commonly prescribed. The drug consistently accomplishes its purpose in hastening death, Parrot says: “It always works. It always, always works.”
Parrot and Wood keep track of patient data, and they continue to make discoveries. By examining medical histories of the patients who took longer to die, they’ve learned about certain risk factors for longer deaths: being on extremely high doses of painkillers such as fentanyl or morphine; being very athletic; having a compromised digestive tract. For patients who are especially risky, Parrot or Wood will sometimes offer the choice of chloral hydrate, the drug that burned some patients’ throats, although they say they carefully discuss potential problems with patients and families.
Together, Parrot and Law have written perhaps 300 lethal prescriptions over the years and observed the effects of medications on numerous patients. Neither set out to be an aid-in-dying advocate; they turned to End of Life Washington after witnessing the suffering of some dying patients. About eight years ago, Law says she was asked to prescribe lethal medications for a dying woman whose regular doctors had refused. She agreed to see the woman, and realized how difficult it was for some aid-in-dying patients to find doctors. Parrot says she was profoundly affected by the deaths of two close friends who asked her to help hasten their dying, but who lived in states where the practice was illegal. She was unable to help them, and began volunteering as an aid-in-dying doctor soon after she retired.
Most medical professionals don’t participate in aid in dying. Some physicians are concerned that their Hippocratic oath prohibits intentionally helping someone die, or that aid-in-dying requests originate from treatable pain or depression. Some worry about the broader repercussions for a society that accepts medically aiding the deaths of the terminally ill. The American Medical Association remains officially opposed.
Without the support of the rest of the profession and much of society, aid-in-dying research methods don’t fit the model of good medical research, says Matthew Wynia, the director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado. There’s no standard protocol, no standardized data collection or independent group that monitors data and safety—all of which are intended to protect patients and help ensure the quality of the research.
The Belmont Report, which guides federal recommendations for research on human subjects, recognizes that sometimes, no satisfactory options exist for some patients, Wynia points out. In those rare cases, a doctor may want to try an innovative treatment, something for which there’s no approved research protocol. While that’s legal, clinicians are supposed to avoid turning that innovation into established practice, or doing unapproved research on numerous patients, according to Wynia. Some of the same issues exist with medical marijuana, which is legal in several states but still illegal federally. “There’s no way to fix this at the individual level,” Wynia says. “There’s no immediate answer.”
That leaves researchers like Law and Parrot in a bind. They don’t have good ways to do research and communicate what they learn. But they’ve witnessed the suffering some dying people experience, and contrast that with many peaceful deaths of patients who choose aid in dying. “These are not hard deaths,” argues Shavelson, the California physician. “These are lovely deaths.”
Shavelson says he tries to be at the bedside on the day of his aid-in-dying patients’ death. “It’s a lighter atmosphere than you think,” he says. The patient takes the first drug, which Shavelson separates out from the rest of the mixture, and then Shavelson sits down at the bedside and reads aloud questions from the state’s required report. After about 30 minutes, he asks: “Are you ready to take the medications?” He mixes the drug cocktail and the patient drinks it.
“Usually, they go silent after taking the medication,” he says. “They’ve said what they’re going to say by that time.” For a few minutes, patients usually continue to sit silently, their eyes open. “And then, very, very slowly, they’ll close their eyes.”
Shavelson asks intermittently, “Are you still there?” At first, patients usually say yes, or nod. Within five or 10 minutes, they stop responding to the question. Then Shavelson will gently touch their eyelids. “When people aren’t deeply unconscious, they’ll sort of have a twitching response,” he explains. Within 10 or 15 minutes, the twitching response disappears, and patients enter a deep coma.
Using a heart monitor, Shavelson tells caregivers as a patient’s pulse slows and oxygen levels drop. “We wait a little while, and then I say, ‘Ah, the patient’s now dead.’”
This is the first generation of patients who have consciously hastened their death with medications in this way, Shavelson says. He tells them they’re pioneers. “What a different thing, to be able to say, ‘This is the day I die,’” he says.
Mort Felix liked to say that his name, when read as two Latin words, meant “happy death.” When he was sick with the flu, he used to jokingly remind his wife, Susan, that he wanted Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” played at his deathbed. But when his life’s end arrived at the age of 77, he lay in his study in his Berkeley, California, home, his body besieged by cancer and his consciousness cradled in morphine, uninterested in music and refusing food as he dwindled away over three weeks in 2012. “Enough,” he told Susan. “Thank you, and I love you, and enough.” When she came downstairs the next morning, she found Felix dead.
During those three weeks, Felix had talked. He was a clinical psychologist who had also spent a lifetime writing poetry, and though his end-of-life speech often didn’t make sense, it seemed to draw from his attention to language. “There’s so much so in sorrow,” he said at one point. “Let me down from here,” he said at another. “I’ve lost my modality.” To the surprise of his family members, the lifelong atheist also began hallucinating angels and complaining about the crowded room—even though no one was there.
Felix’s 53-year-old daughter, Lisa Smartt, kept track of his utterances, writing them down as she sat at his bedside in those final days. Smartt majored in linguistics at UC Berkeley in the 1980s and built a career teaching adults to read and write. Transcribing Felix’s ramblings was a sort of coping mechanism for her, she says. Something of a poet herself (as a child, she sold poems, three for a penny, like other children sold lemonade), she appreciated his unmoored syntax and surreal imagery. Smartt also wondered whether her notes had any scientific value, and eventually she wrote a book, Words on the Threshold, published in early 2017, about the linguistic patterns in 2,000 utterances from 181 dying people, including her father.
Despite the limitations of this book, it’s unique—it’s the only published work I could find when I tried to satisfy my curiosity about how people really talk when they die. I knew about collections of “last words,” eloquent and enunciated, but these can’t literally show the linguistic abilities of dying people. It turns out that vanishingly few have ever examined these actual linguistic patterns, and to find any sort of rigor, one has to go back to 1921, to the work of the American anthropologist Arthur MacDonald.To assess people’s “mental condition just before death,” MacDonald mined last-word anthologies, the only linguistic corpus then available, dividing people into 10 occupational categories (statesmen, philosophers, poets, etc.) and coding their last words as sarcastic, jocose, contented, and so forth. MacDonald found that military men had the “relatively highest number of requests, directions, or admonitions,” while philosophers (who included mathematicians and educators) had the most “questions, answers, and exclamations.” The religious and royalty used the most words to express contentment or discontentment, while the artists and scientists used the fewest.
MacDonald’s work “seems to be the only attempt to evaluate last words by quantifying them, and the results are curious,” wrote the German scholar Karl Guthke in his book Last Words, on Western culture’s long fascination with them. Mainly, MacDonald’s work shows that we need better data about verbal and nonverbal abilities at the end of life. One point that Guthke makes repeatedly is that last words, as anthologized in multiple languages since the 17th century, are artifacts of an era’s concerns and fascinations about death, not “historical facts of documentary status.” They can tell us little about a dying person’s actual ability to communicate.
Some contemporary approaches move beyond the oratorical monologues of yore and focus on emotions and relationships. Books such as Final Gifts, published in 1992 by the hospice nurses Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, and Final Conversations, published in 2007 by Maureen Keeley, a Texas State University communications-studies scholar, and Julie Yingling, professor emerita at Humboldt State University, aim to sharpen the skills of the living for having important, meaningful conversations with dying people. Previous centuries’ focus on last words has ceded space to the contemporary focus on last conversations and even nonverbal interactions. “As the person gets weaker and sleepier, communication with others often becomes more subtle,” Callanan and Kelley write. “Even when people are too weak to speak, or have lost consciousness, they can hear; hearing is the last sense to fade.”
I spoke to Maureen Keeley shortly after the death of George H. W. Bush, whose last words (“I love you, too,” he reportedly told his son, George W. Bush) were widely reported in the media, but she said they should properly be seen in the context of a conversation (“I love you,” the son had said first) as well as all the prior conversations with family members leading up to that point.
At the end of life, Keeley says, the majority of interactions will be nonverbal as the body shuts down and the person lacks the physical strength, and often even the lung capacity, for long utterances. “People will whisper, and they’ll be brief, single words—that’s all they have energy for,” Keeley said. Medications limit communication. So does dry mouth and lack of dentures. She also noted that family members often take advantage of a patient’s comatose state to speak their piece, when the dying person cannot interrupt or object.
Many people die in such silence, particularly if they have advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s that robbed them of language years earlier. For those who do speak, it seems their vernacular is often banal. From a doctor I heard that people often say, “Oh fuck, oh fuck.” Often it’s the names of wives, husbands, children. “A nurse from the hospice told me that the last words of dying men often resembled each other,” wrote Hajo Schumacher in a September essay in Der Spiegel. “Almost everyone is calling for ‘Mommy’ or ‘Mama’ with the last breath.”
It’s still the interactions that fascinate me, partly because their subtle interpersonal textures are lost when they’re written down. A linguist friend of mine, sitting with his dying grandmother, spoke her name. Her eyes opened, she looked at him, and died. What that plain description omits is how he paused when he described the sequence to me, and how his eyes quivered.
But there are no descriptions of the basics of last words or last interactions in the scientific literature. The most linguistic detail exists about delirium, which involves a loss of consciousness, the inability to find words, restlessness, and a withdrawal from social interaction. Delirium strikes people of all ages after surgery and is also common at the end of life, a frequent sign of dehydration and over-sedation. Delirium is so frequent then, wrote the New Zealand psychiatrist Sandy McLeod, that “it may even be regarded as exceptional for patients to remain mentally clear throughout the final stages of malignant illness.” About half of people who recover from postoperative delirium recall the disorienting, fearful experience. In a Swedish study, one patient recalled that “I certainly was somewhat tired after the operation and everything … and I did not know where I was. I thought it became like misty, in some way … the outlines were sort of fuzzy.” How many people are in a similar state as they approach death? We can only guess.
We have a rich picture of the beginnings of language, thanks to decades of scientific research with children, infants, and even babies in the womb. But if you wanted to know how language ends in dying people, there’s next to nothing to look up, only firsthand knowledge gained painfully.
After her father died, Lisa Smartt was left with endless questions about what she had heard him say, and she approached graduate schools, proposing to study last words academically. After being rebuffed, she began interviewing family members and medical staff on her own. That led her to collaborate with Raymond Moody Jr., the Virginia-born psychiatrist best known for his work on “near-death experiences” in a 1975 best-selling book, Life After Life. He has long been interested in what he calls “peri-mortal nonsense” and helped Smartt with the work that became Words on the Threshold, based on her father’s utterances as well as ones she’d collected via a website she called the Final Words Project.
One common pattern she noted was that when her father, Felix, used pronouns such as it and this, they didn’t clearly refer to anything. One time he said, “I want to pull these down to earth somehow … I really don’t know … no more earth binding.” What did these refer to? His sense of his body in space seemed to be shifting. “I got to go down there. I have to go down,” he said, even though there was nothing below him.
He also repeated words and phrases, often ones that made no sense. “The green dimension! The green dimension!” (Repetition is common in the speech of people with dementia and also those who are delirious.) Smartt found that repetitions often expressed themes such as gratitude and resistance to death. But there were also unexpected motifs, such as circles, numbers, and motion. “I’ve got to get off, get off! Off of this life,” Felix had said.
Smartt says she’s been most surprised by narratives in people’s speech that seem to unfold, piecemeal, over days. Early on, one man talked about a train stuck at a station, then days later referred to the repaired train, and then weeks later to how the train was moving northward.
“If you just walk through the room and you heard your loved one talk about ‘Oh, there’s a boxing champion standing by my bed,’ that just sounds like some kind of hallucination,” Smartt says. “But if you see over time that that person has been talking about the boxing champion and having him wearing that, or doing this, you think, Wow, there’s this narrative going on.” She imagines that tracking these story lines could be clinically useful, particularly as the stories moved toward resolution, which might reflect a person’s sense of the impending end.
In Final Gifts, the hospice nurses Callanan and Kelley note that “the dying often use the metaphor of travel to alert those around them that it is time for them to die.” They quote a 17-year-old, dying of cancer, distraught because she can’t find the map. “If I could find the map, I could go home! Where’s the map? I want to go home!” Smartt noted such journey metaphors as well, though she writes that dying people seem to get more metaphorical in general. (However, people with dementia and Alzheimer’s have difficulty understanding figurative language, and anthropologists who study dying in other cultures told me that journey metaphors aren’t prevalent everywhere.)
Even basic descriptions of language at the end of life would not only advance linguistic understanding but also provide a host of benefits to those who work with dying people, and dying people themselves. Experts told me that a more detailed road map of changes could help counter people’s fear of death and provide them with some sense of control. It could also offer insight into how to communicate better with dying people. Differences in cultural metaphors could be included in training for hospice nurses who may not share the same cultural frame as their patients.
End-of-life communication will only become more relevant as life lengthens and deaths happen more frequently in institutions. Most people in developed countries won’t die as quickly and abruptly as their ancestors did. Thanks to medical advances and preventive care, a majority of people will likely die from either some sort of cancer, some sort of organ disease (foremost being cardiovascular disease), or simply advanced age. Those deaths will often be long and slow, and will likely take place in hospitals, hospices, or nursing homes overseen by teams of medical experts. And people can participate in decisions about their care only while they are able to communicate. More knowledge about how language ends and how dying people communicate would give patients more agency for a longer period of time.
But studying language and interaction at the end of life remains a challenge, because of cultural taboos about death and ethical concerns about having scientists at a dying person’s bedside. Experts also pointed out to me that each death is unique, which presents a variability that science has difficulty grappling with.
And in the health-care realm, the priorities are defined by doctors. “I think that work that is more squarely focused on describing communication patterns and behaviors is much harder to get funded because agencies like NCI prioritize research that directly reduces suffering from cancer, such as interventions to improve palliative-care communication,” says Wen-ying Sylvia Chou, a program director in the Behavioral Research Program at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health, who oversees funding on patient-doctor communication at the end of life.
Despite the faults of Smartt’s book (it doesn’t control for things such as medication, for one thing, and it’s colored by an interest in the afterlife), it takes a big step toward building a corpus of data and looking for patterns. This is the same first step that child-language studies took in its early days. That field didn’t take off until natural historians of the 19th century, most notably Charles Darwin, began writing down things their children said and did. (In 1877, Darwin published a biographical sketch about his son, William, noting his first word: mum.) Such “diary studies,” as they were called, eventually led to a more systematic approach, and early child-language research has itself moved away from solely studying first words.
“Famous last words” are the cornerstone of a romantic vision of death—one that falsely promises a final burst of lucidity and meaning before a person passes. “The process of dying is still very profound, but it’s a very different kind of profoundness,” says Bob Parker, the chief compliance officer of the home health agency Intrepid USA. “Last words—it doesn’t happen like the movies. That’s not how patients die.” We are beginning to understand that final interactions, if they happen at all, will look and sound very different.
Nothing so alters a person as learning you have a terminal illness.
Ronni Bennett, who writes a popular blog about aging, discovered that recently when she heard that cancer had metastasized to her lungs and her peritoneum (a membrane that lines the cavity of the abdomen).
There is no cure for your condition, Bennett was told by doctors, who estimated she might have six to eight months of good health before symptoms began to appear.
Right then and there, this 77-year-old resolved to start doing things differently — something many people might be inclined to do in a similar situation.
No more extended exercise routines every morning, a try-to-stay-healthy activity that Bennett had forced herself to adopt but disliked intensely.
No more watching her diet, which had allowed her to shed 40 pounds several years ago and keep the weight off, with considerable effort.
No more worrying about whether memory lapses were normal or an early sign of dementia — an irrelevant issue now.
No more pretending that the cliche “we’re all terminal” (since death awaits all of us) is especially insightful. This abstraction has nothing to do with the reality of knowing, in your gut, that your own death is imminent, Bennett realized.
“It colors everything,” she told me in a long and wide-ranging conversation recently. “I’ve always lived tentatively, but I’m not anymore because the worst has happened — I’ve been told I’m going to die.”
No more listening to medical advice from friends and acquaintances, however well-intentioned. Bennett has complete trust in her medical team at Oregon Health & Science University, which has treated her since diagnosing pancreatic cancer last year. She’s done with responding politely to people who think they know better, she said.
And no more worrying, even for a minute, what anyone thinks of her. As Bennett wrote in a recent blog post, “All kinds of things . . . fall away at just about the exact moment the doctor says, ‘There is no treatment.’ ”
Four or five times a day, a wave of crushing fear washes through her, Bennett told me. She breathes deeply and lets it pass. And no, psychotherapy isn’t something she wants to consider.
Instead, she’ll feel whatever it is she needs to feel — and learn from it. This is how she wants to approach death, Bennett said: alert, aware, lucid. “Dying is the last great adventure we have — the last bit of life — and I want to experience it as it happens,” she said.
Writing is, for Bennett, a necessity, the thing she wants to do more than anything during this last stage of her life. For decades, it’s been her way of understanding the world — and herself.
In a notebook, Bennett has been jotting down thoughts and feelings as they come to her. Some she already has shared in a series of blog posts about her illness. Some she’s saving for the future.
There are questions she hasn’t figured out how to answer yet.
“Can I still watch trashy TV shows?”
“How do I choose what books to read, given that my time is finite?
“What do I think about rationale suicide?” (Physician-assisted death is an option in Oregon, where Bennett lives.)
Along with her “I’m done with that” list, Bennett has a list of what she wants to embrace:
Ice cream and cheese, her favorite foods. Walks in the park near her home. Get-togethers with her public affairs discussion group. A romp with kittens or puppies licking her and making her laugh. A sense of normalcy, for as long as possible. “What I want is my life, very close to what it is,” she explained. And deep conversations with friends. “What has been most helpful and touched me most are the friends who are willing to let me talk about this,” she said.
On her blog, she has invited readers to “ask any questions at all” and made it clear she welcomes frank communication.
“I’m new to this — this dying thing — and there’s no instruction book. I’m kind of fascinated by what you do with yourself during this period, and questions help me figure out what I think,” she told me.
Recently, a reader asked Bennett if she was angry about her cancer. No, Bennett answered. “Early on, I read about some cancer patients who get hung up on ‘why me?’ My response was ‘why not me?’ Most of my family died of cancer and, 40 percent of all Americans will have some form of cancer during their lives.”
Dozens of readers have responded with shock, sadness and gratitude for Bennett’s honesty about subjects that usually aren’t discussed in public.
“Because she’s writing about her own experiences in detail and telling people how she feels, people are opening up and relaying their experiences — things that maybe they’ve never said to anyone before,” Millie Garfield, 93, a devoted reader and friend of Bennett’s, told me in a phone conversation.
Garfield’s parents never talked about illness and death the way Bennett is doing. “I didn’t have this close communication with them, and they never opened up to me about all the things Ronni is talking about,” she said.
For the last year, Bennett and her former husband, Alex Bennett, have broadcast video conversations every few weeks over YouTube. (He lives across the country in New York City.) “What you’ve written will be valuable as a document of somebody’s life and how to leave it,” he told her recently as they talked about her condition with poignancy and laughter.
Other people may have very different perspectives as they take stock of their lives upon learning they have a terminal illness. Some may not want to share their innermost thoughts and feelings; others may do so willingly or if they feel other people really want to listen.
During the past 15 years, Bennett chose to live her life out loud through her blog. For the moment, she’s as committed as ever to doing that.
“There’s very little about dying from the point of view of someone who’s living that experience,” she said. “This is one of the very big deals of aging and, absolutely, I’ll keep writing about this as long as I want to or can.”
Your dad is dying. You’ve known it for months but the nurse is serious tonight when she calls and asks you to come sit with him in his narrow room at the veterans’ home. He’s in the later stages of congestive heart failure, complicated by diabetes, obesity, gout, prostate problems, and whatever other trouble years of poor diet, little exercise, long work hours, and minimal health care will get you. That he held out until age seventy is a little medical miracle and not much credit to the VA, which can’t keep track of his records.
You keep track of his records.
He’s propped up in pajamas on rough white sheets, working for each breath. You swab his mouth as it hangs open, showing discolored and misplaced teeth he never could afford to fix. His skin is mottled both from age and the cystic acne that’s plagued him all his life. An oxygen tube would help but he’s asked for no interventions, no heroics. That’s the Dad you remember, the long-suffering Marine who was proud to serve when his number came up. He finished basic at the head of his platoon. Now he takes chronic pain as another heavy pack to carry, mile after mile.
Your brother would like to be here but he’s at work on the West Coast and can’t afford time off. It’s a theme in your family, not having money for things that are important. Your parents divorced fifteen years ago when Dad lost his job as a grocery buyer and took one in another state with worse hours, conditions, and pay—managing a convenience store, a humiliation he carried in his posture, soldier straight until then. Enough, your mother said. She’d followed him on a trail of nowhere cities and inadequate employment that would end with her solitary stand in a cold, dusty Northern Plains town you couldn’t get out of fast enough.
Your dad barely opens his eyes but reaches to grasp your hand. Although you’re a grown woman and a lawyer with an urgent case file to read at midnight by his bedside, you’re still his little girl, the proof that he did something right. He didn’t drink like his dad. He didn’t hit you more than the occasional spanking. He didn’t leave. His greatest parenting accomplishments are acts of omission, but there are also affirmative acts of love. He stopped smoking when you were born. He taught you to ride your bike, drive, fish, salute, hit hard from an unexpected angle, and fight back against anyone who looked down on you.
He taught you that people will look down on you, but he didn’t mean to. He knows no other way to see the world. You’re ashamed to remember the times you’ve been ashamed of him—for his thin short sleeve dress shirts, his fast food gut, the way he picks his teeth with his pocket knife and quotes country music lyrics—because he’s always been so proud of you. He achieved what no one in his family ever had: he got a college degree. Sure, he almost flunked out, pool sharking to make ends meet where the GI Bill didn’t quite cover the needs of a family, but he graduated when neither of his parents finished eighth grade. You suspect that you have no idea how hard that really was.
“How’d you get a woman like her to marry someone like you?” a colleague asked him at a work dinner once when your mom wore her one string of fake pearls and a little black dress that made her look like Jackie O. The story hung on in the family for years, a pretty compliment to her, embedded with the kind of put-down he absorbed all his life. With his bottle-bottom glasses, bad skin, bad teeth, cheap suit, and shaggy haircut, he makes a terrible first impression, a walking sitcom punch line, and he knows it. He’s also funny and a good singer and can be kind if he isn’t provoked, but most people wouldn’t take the time to know him that well.
It took adulthood to make you wonder how he stumbled so badly when it came to solidifying his place in the middle class. For a while you thought it was his unique failings, an inability to assimilate, and surely appearance and social skills are part of the story. Then you began to look around you in towns like those you grew up in and saw that his appearance was nothing unusual. It’s the look of people who have zero disposable income to spend on themselves, especially the men, who wash their hair with a bar of soap, brush their teeth, and rush to work in whatever’s clean. It’s the outward appearance of poverty.
You know the careful visual distinctions we make in this country. “Dress like the job you want” also means “if you can’t dress and groom that way, good luck getting that job.” You’re your father’s daughter, so you grok the penalty of dressing the wrong way, but you’re also uneasy with passing as upper class no matter what your education and salary. The working class made you and at some fundamental level you’re loyal to it. The reflexive mockery of the people you come from by the people around you bites every time. And when Hannibal Lecter says to Clarice Starling, “You’re just one generation removed from poor white trash”—oh, you feel that. You know the gaze the monster turns on her. You’ve spent years avoiding it.
But in your father’s prime working years, the seventies through the nineties, larger forces were massing against Americans who grew up poor, believing in the bootstrap dream. Wages stagnated then shuffled into a decided downward trend. He got minimal raises and tiny bonuses, never grossing over $30,000 a year. There was no pension. He cashed out his IRA to put a down payment on a house after the divorce. Like tens of millions of Americans, you had no dental coverage growing up and learned to brush and floss compulsively while your dad paid for his root canal out of his own pocket.
You have dental insurance now.
He never did.
In many ways you’re exceptional among not just your family but your generation. You’ve risen above your origins while others, including family members, have fallen back even from their own highest social standing. The single-wide trailer house you moved your dad out of when his health failed was an anchor and an oracle. It said, “Don’t get too high and mighty. You could wind up here too.” Yet even as he experienced the setbacks that have turned many white men bitter and angry—and there was bitterness and anger enough—your dad hasn’t turned against his class. He’s a yellow dog Democrat who’s voted and argued all his life for the honor and rights of the working man, the laborer, the veteran against forces that would crush them.
And now he’s dying. You should have done better for him, found other doctors, spent more time, but you were working long hours at the firm. You have a child of your own. You had so little to give after all he gave you, and that’s the way of your family, too—never enough to go around. Never enough self-esteem or social capital, never enough sanity or sobriety, never enough love, because even though you were loved, the greeting card trope is true: to love someone else, you have to love yourself first. Your dad loved you as best he could, but his real gift was the sense of inadequacy that drives you.
He won’t let go of your hand. He’s waited for this night, you realize, when you’d be here and he could die holding his little girl’s hand, accompanied into the unknown. He doesn’t want to die alone, so you stay as hours pass, testimony blurs before your eyes, and the hard chair hurts your back and legs. His breaths rasp. If you look up you can follow each one, the inflation of blue-veined, hollowed cheeks, the rise of gown and blanket, parched lips you moisten with a sponge on a lollipop stick.
There’s a little gasp, and then silence. He’s not hooked up to machines so you have to stand over him to be sure that no breath or heartbeat stirs him. His eyes opened at the end, facing death with a brave heart, you imagine. You put your hand on his eyelids like they do in police dramas and shut them. You kiss his cheek and say, “Goodbye, Daddy.”