Wes is Dying
My father-in-law Wes, is 97 year old and dying. It’s time and maybe, past time. He was born in November of 1921, three years after WWI ended (when everyone was in the mood to celebrate), and two years after Prohibition began (when it became illegal to celebrate—at least with alcohol). But none of that mattered much to Wes and his family because they were abstainers, pacifist Mennonites, and farmers.
I wonder what Wes remembers about his early life now that he’s 97? I once read a short story, The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, about an old woman on her death bed floating in and out of consciousness, remembering events and people in her life, most notably George, who had jilted her at the wedding altar decades before. One of my earliest memories is holding my mother’s hand, walking across busy Lusher Avenue to the store to buy a Reese Cup and a bottle of Pepsi. I was worried I might get run over by all the fast cars. Will this be a significant memory at my death bed?
Listening to Wes talk recently, it’s clear he’s rapidly losing most of his memories. It seems like in an attempt to fill this void in his mind, his imagination has taken over and began creating all manner of fiction. With the head of his mechanical hospital bed moved so he could sit up, he told me over and over again some wild tale about how his nurse had gone missing. She was supposed to come back and take care of him—but she didn’t. Wes thought she must have been in a car accident.
Wes’s doctors tell us his dementia is a many-faceted phenomenon that can cause certain unintended consequences, like losing the ability to track your thirst. In fact, Wes could die of dehydration. Which seems so curable in comparison to all the life-threatening cancers floating around us. It could be that when you’re as old as Wes and have fought as hard as he has to survive, your immune system is well girded for the big diseases. It’s the small, innocuous thieves, like a lack of thirst, which can steal your life away.
Wes has asked to come home to the farm to die. It’s important to him. Farming may be the only occupation I know that attaches itself so deeply to the psyche that you can’t live or die without being in some fashion immersed in it. Accountants don’t want to go to the office to die, nor truck drivers to their trucks. Farming though is more than work, it’s a way of life, and for Wes, also a way of death.
This talk about where Wes wants to die has caused me to consider where I’d like to die. I’ve always loved the rich, sensual experience of being outdoors, feeling the sun on my face or smelling the rain. I imagine myself near death, laying in a bed that’s been wheeled onto my back patio. Looking up at the deep, blue skies above me, I breathe my last breath into the atmosphere. Such a fanciful, romantic notion. Much of the time, people aren’t very clear-headed at the time of their death. They’re either too sick or too drugged to care about the best location to slip these earthly bonds.
Our greatest hope is that Wes can die peacefully, without anxiety. It’s an event that by its very nature is momentous—yet ironically pedestrian also. I hope death comes for Wes easily, as if that long-lost nurse he thought was in a car accident, finally shows up. She’s kind and soothing, like nurses can be. Then she helps him climb out of his hospital bed and gently leads him out of his room—and out of his life.