When you assume Power of Attorney for someone, you become responsible for making serious decisions for that individual – about finances, about health, about life itself. Maybe the responsibility is cloaked in eventuality, but when that Eventually turns round Suddenly and becomes reality, the impact of how those choices will affect another person hits home.
I have Durable Power of Attorney and, up til now, Eventually has been my expectation. Today I was approached with serious news about life expectancy, and Suddenly I felt the burden of the responsibility I’d assumed. The impact of what I’d be asked to do – help with decisions about surgery, about relocating, change in living arrangements, about discussing the possibilities and probabilities that lay ahead were laid out before me by a night nurse with clipboard in hand, who spoke to me as an informed colleague about something I’d seen on a monitor but chalked up to malfunction.
For a cumulative two months, I’ve lived day and night with a person whose life was changed by the death of a spouse. Suddenly, there was no one to issue orders, check the locks, assure that everyday life and routines would go on as usual. An enormous void had been created and the result was the loss of will to live, a voiced plan to save medications and take a bolus of pills that would end the pain peacefully. Over the months we spent together, and the ensuing seven of learning to live independently, trusting one’s own judgment, and coping with everything alone, came strength and confidence in the ability to live on.
Today, this third day post op total hip replacement, I learn this 85-year-old piece of wisdom and strength faces yet another challenge. The night before, in casual conversation, the question came up again to the doctor making rounds, “I don’t want to live. Is it normal to want to give up?” His calculated response was one of understanding were he to suddenly lose his spouse and be facing life without his wife of 30 years. He was obviously uncomfortable, more used to issuing rote assurances of successful surgical outcomes, citing risks and benefits, but to the heartfelt question of how to go on living, he had no sincere, comfortable answer. It was a simple statement, thus: “I’m ready to die and that’s okay with me.”
I know in my heart this new complication will be met stoically, with resolve not to treat surgically or medically, but to accept death as it comes, whether it calls sooner or later. Up to this point, the future seemed easily mapped out with modified living arrangements, but as the days of recovery pass, it becomes obvious the stress and strain of going it alone are only to be coped with, not embraced and overcome.
I’ve always felt awkward expressing my satisfaction with hospice work. I believe with all my heart that each of us deserves to die with dignity and, if lucky, have a choice or two about how that comes about, even luckier if it takes us by surprise. I cannot encourage beyond offering hope that the desire to live may return with time and treatment, but I know the choice to prolong life by risky, painful treatment will not be made. The resolute expression of surrender will once again appear and acceptance of whatever the future holds will be a decision already made.
The complexity of a responsibility such as this incorporates the feelings of family, and what they would hope for. Wills have been made and changed, hard feelings will become coping mechanisms for old animosities and resentments, and the loss of this individual, whose mind and heart are so simply connected as to shed all but love and concern for what is left behind, forces me to recognize what is important – dignity.
So, as good as the insurance is, as varied or limited are the options presented, as fearful might be the prospect of deciding what to do, I shall respect that choice to die in peace. All words of solace mean nothing if respect does not include accepting that choice. Suddenly, I want to make this life mean something as it ends, if by nothing more than honoring how that happens.