… my younger brother sensed that our father was not long for this world. He noted my father’s health problems… and the sadness in my father’s eyes. He noted my father’s fatalistic daily behaviors and approach to life…-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #6, Sept. 14, 2018
I wrote the above in one of my earliest posts following my Papa’s death; and I have continued to reflect upon it, perhaps more than any other aspect of the tragic event.
As I’ve written before, one of the reasons that Papa’s death continues to be so difficult for me to wrap my mind and heart around (more than three years later) is that it was so sudden and unexpected. He died of pneumonia at the age of 70, within hours of Mama bringing him to the hospital.
We knew that Papa had an underlying health complication – early stage blood cancer. He had been living with this condition for a few years, without receiving any treatment for it because his doctor recommended against starting chemotherapy at such an early stage… He believed it would have caused more damage to Papa’s health than the cancer itself. The doctor said that Papa almost certainly would not die of that blood cancer. He said that it was treatable.
Almost three years ago, back when I was blogging regularly about reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for my father, I put together a list of coincidences surrounding Papa’s death. However, there was one coincidence that I knowingly omitted because it was too painful to write about. You see, after several years of semi-annual visits to his doctor, Papa had finally been scheduled to start receiving chemotherapy… Then, unexpectedly, he died of pneumonia days before his first treatment.
Papa had intended to go through with chemotherapy, but I believe that his self-image remained that of the hearty, athletic man he had been in his younger years… He had always thought of himself as the strong one; and if there’s one thing I am certain of, it is that Papa did not want to live in a weakened, dependent state.
Babushka’s determination to live was tremendous, particularly given her frailty and failing constitution. Last summer, after being intubated in the hospital… my grandmother mustered the will to breathe independently. The hospital staff were utterly flabbergasted…-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #8, Sept. 14, 2018
By coincidence, my Babushka (Mama’s mother) died a few months later. In contrast to Papa’s death, her passing was hardly unexpected because of her advanced age and years-long physical deterioration.
By the time Babushka died, she had been blind for several years (due to diabetes) and spent almost all of her days sitting on or lying on her couch, getting up only to eat, go to bed, etc. She was entirely dependent upon her live-in caretaker and had few daily pleasures, other than speaking by phone with family members who would call to buoy her spirits.
Nevertheless, and somewhat amazingly to me, Babushka clearly wanted to live for as long as possible. Despite her deep despondency at the drastically reduced quality of her daily life, she continued to relish her every breath of every day.
Some people will do anything to stay alive. They are willing to physically and psychologically suffer more than I am capable of imagining to stave off their deaths. I have known such people, including some dear relatives of mine.
Other people, also including some friends and relatives of mine, observe the suffering of their loved ones who are battling against terrible diseases and say to themselves and others: “I would rather die than go through that. A life of such suffering is not worth it.”
And you know what? I don’t think either of these perspectives is more moral, more righteous, more correct, or more… anything.
I cannot possibly know how I would feel if I were facing a cancer diagnosis, but, honestly, I’m inclined to think that I would be one to prefer minimizing my suffering. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t go through all of my prescribed medical treatments (I’m sure I would)… But I’m not so sure my heart would be into the fight. I’m far from certain that I would have the will to stay alive by any and all means necessary.
Papa died very, very quickly and very, very, very unexpectedly. One moment he was alive, and several hours later at the hospital, his heart stopped beating. Despite not wanting to entertain these dark thoughts, I still find myself wondering whether, on some deep, subconscious level, Papa lacked the will to fight.
I struggle with why this should matter to me at all, especially as there’s no way of knowing… And, anyway, knowing myself as I do, who the heck am I to judge?