And In the End… Part 2

My April 2024 column for the San Diego Troubadour.


OK, let’s get to it. 


My father had lung cancer. He lived in Florida, where medical care is…shall we gently say, inconsistent. After a complicated operation to address a side-effect of his cancer treatment, he was sent to a “rehabilitation” facility, which is where they farm some people off to when they don’t want them taking up hospital beds but can’t risk sending them to their own houses, either. It’s basically the ever-so-slightly-better staffed wing of a convalescent home.


I had been shuttling down on weekends and for some extended stays, and was preparing to go down long-term to help with his treatment and recovery a bit later in the process.


One day my father called me from the rehab and said, “Josh, I am going to die in this place and no one will care or notice.”


I called the head of the facility — a physician — and told him my father was alone in his room, ringing repeatedly for a nurse, and worried he was going to pass before anyone even happened to coincidentally walk by, let alone intentionally answer the call. I asked how they could let someone languish in that state.


The doctor did not welcome the phone call. After some insufficient explanations, and some pushback from me, he said, obnoxiously and condescendingly, “Joshua. Has no one told you your father is dying? He does not belong in our facility. We are not prepared to deal with someone in your father’s state. Where do you get off demanding that we better tend to him? Your father needs to be in hospice, not a rehab facility. He will not be recovering, Joshua. He is dying.” He then went on to aggressively list all the ways that every breath my father took from then on could very realistically be his last.


What a dick, and what a cop-out. My dad deserved better.


And yet…the honest truth was that no, no one had told me anything like that. I honestly thought my dad was going to get his operation and finish his treatment and go on being the bad-ass Bronx street-fighting philosopher/book addict/funniest and smartest person in every room that he’d always been — and so did my father. That dickhead doctor was the first person who’d said any version of this, to either of us.


I flew down that day to move him out of the home and into hospice, and to accelerate my own move down. A nurse in the rehab facility saw me in his room, pulled me aside, and said, “You need to go say your goodbyes to your sweet father. God bless you both.” I thought, WTF? He isn’t that close to dying. Give the guy a chance! She clearly didn’t know what she was talking about — just more evidence that they weren’t set up to take care of him there.


I checked my father out of rehab and found a kind ambulance driver who broke some rules and drove my father to hospice, even though that dickhead doctor hadn’t signed the required paperwork. I followed the ambulance to hospice and spent the night there on the chair next to my dad’s bed.


And wouldn’t you goddamn know it, that was the night he died. That dickhead doctor was right. The crazy nurse was right. There was no “later” for my father. One of those very next breaths was his last.


That harsh and aggressive and unwelcome phrase — ”has no one told you your father is dying” — gave me the chance to be with my incredible dad when he passed, and to say goodbye to him. For him it meant he passed in a peaceful place with his only child there, instead of dying alone and unknown in a cold, cinder-blocked rehab wing. I have forever been grateful. That dickhead was the only one the whole time my dad was sick, who’d told me the truth. He and that nurse gave me the gift of goodbye. Left to my own devices, I’d have waited for a “later” that never came.


I thought of that phrase a couple of weeks ago when, twice in the same week, I came across a social media post asking a version of the question, “If you could do anything else with your life, what would it be?”


Holy crud is this question sad to me. At the core, it means we’ve normalized unfulfillment. Why, on the whole, are we not already doing what we “could” do with our lives? When did we decide to approach our time here like an existential savings account? Do we not all realize that we are dying?


“Later” is an idea made up by the indulgent to borrow time from the mortal. It is a side-effect of prosperous times. It is also a thief.  You are going to die, and you don’t know when. The people you love are going to die, and we don’t know when. We hide in later to avoid the urgency of now.


I’ve almost checked out a couple of times (that I know of) — once as a child and twice as an adult. On one of those two adult occasions I had time, while it was happening, to know life was ending and reconcile myself with the existence I’d be leaving. This isn’t anything “special” or different — we’ve all been a coin-flip away many times in our life, we just haven’t known it. 


Yet nothing crystalizes the time we’ve wasted, like potentially running out of it. 


The funerals and post-death gatherings we’ve all been to are moments of singular clarity — the present-tense, pencil-point focus on the value of a person and the ways we are better for knowing them. At the end of our lives, we do not brag about the raises we got or the races we won or the arguments we got the best of someone in. None of us is buried with an asterisk on our gravestone that says, “Really wanted to be a chef,” or “Remembered who said the wrong thing that made the fight happen.” We don’t get tattooed at the embalmer with a note that explains how our fear of disappointing our parents or someone else led us to a life of frightened compromise. We do not earn points-back, with each journey away from ourselves, toward an additional life that spawns when we expire. 


We simply wish for more time with the people we love and we regret the desires – experiential or otherwise – unmet. Period.


The time I knew for long enough to have thoughts about it that I was dying, I did not remember a single disagreement I’d ever had, with anyone. I only knew I’d wasted my life, and felt bad that I wasn’t leaving a more honorable legacy for those who were about to lose me forever.


When I said my goodbyes to my father, the entire world was him and me in that moment, and the myriad happinesses we’d had. All those routine familial mosquitoes of expectation and instigation, frustration and alienation, meant exactly as little, instantly, as they had previously sometimes meant a lot. 


I’m sure it’s been the same way for you when you’ve lost people you love. 


So I ask you, not what you would do with your life if you could do something else, but rather: Why are you spending the only natural resource we can never recover — time — on anything else but that?


Clean house. Dispense of the various “deaths in life.” Treat others as if it is their last day on earth, and make sure that when you die, you end the only life you can imagine living. 


Do you not realize you are dying?

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