A Vigil

Dad and me in better times

Dad and me in better times

The first definition of the word “vigil” is “A watch kept during normal sleeping hours” (according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, my reference of choice in such matters). The second definition is “The act or a period of observing; surveillance.” I have, in fact, been engaged in a vigil in both meanings of the word for the last 36 hours or so – keeping watch over my father in the hospital, around the clock, observing his condition, which is not very good.

I slept, if you can call what I did last night sleep, by my father’s bedside, in a rollaway cot. Perhaps that means I failed to be vigilant, which means “On the alert, as for danger or error,” although I was awakened several times during the night by sudden changes in my father’s labored breathing, by a rattle in his chest or a sudden coughing attack, which is to be expected and which is the primary indication of his condition, which is poor, and the failure of which will presumably bring an end to this vigil sometime in the next 48 hours or so.

Sometimes during the night I was awoken by a nurse coming into the room to check on my father. Other times it was just a noise from outside his room – I am, after all, “on the alert,” even through closed eyes and an occasional dream. I had what seemed like a long, bizarre dream or nightmare last night, the likes of which I rarely seem to have these days. I’m not surprised; that is to be expected, given the mental state I’m in, my condition.

When I first came to see my father, which was Thursday, there was a moment when he opened his eyes and saw me and there seemed to be some indication of recognition, and I held his hand and he squeezed, not very, very hard, but enough so that I knew there was a will behind the squeeze of my hand. That was pretty much the only time since I have been here (I am writing this around 1pm on Saturday) in Seattle with my dad that there has been any indication that he knows who I am and that I am here, or that he is happy to see me.

He seems to have had more moments like that with my sister, with whom I am sharing this vigil, and who isn’t a visitor like I am, but who has lived here in Seattle the entire time my dad has been here, since he and my mother moved here in 1991. Thus she has spent way the hell more time with him than I have – I haven’t really lived with him or near him much since I left home for college in 1978, save for a brief period in the late-1980s and early 1990s when my parents did live just a 10-minute drive away from me in the Berkshires.

But pretty much since 1991 our time together has been confined to once or twice yearly visits across the continental United States. So our ties were not as strong as they may have been otherwise, and my dad was never big on talking on the phone (partly because he has always had a hearing problem; partly because he just was not like that, even if he could here), and I take after him that way.

It wasn’t very long after my mom died four and a half years ago that my dad began his own long, slow decline, which saw him move with some alacrity into a nursing home just a few months after his wife was buried. He has Parkinson’s Disease, which limited his mobility and his ability to care for himself, and life since then has been a series of forward and backward steps, until recently, when they have been pretty much all downhill.

Perhaps as a result of Parkinson’s medication, perhaps due somewhat to his genetic makeup, or perhaps as a side effect of the nursing-home lifestyle, my father began to have problems with his colon getting all in a twist, which is quite unpleasant, and which most recently resulted in a surgery that removed a large section of the colon. And as was to be expected in a patient at age 82 with Parkinson’s, which has induced a shocking Kyphosis (from the Greek, kyphos, a hump) – shocking because it made a man who used to stand 6 feet, 4 inches (no one who doesn’t know my father ever believes me when I say that my dad is that tall, because I am nowhere near that tall) shorter than I am – he did not come out of the surgery well. Or rather, the surgery was a success, as they say, but the patient … well, he’s still here, but not very much.

The usual post-surgical complications set in, and the snowball effect has seen them get worse. He has a bacterial pneumonia making it more difficult for him to breathe than it would otherwise, and combined with the Kyphosis, he is unable to cough enough to get things moving in his lungs. It got so bad that he was intubated for awhile – a tube was inserted into his mouth and throat, down to his lungs, forcing oxygen into him – but that’s no way to live, as you have to be sedated in order to be able to accommodate the tube (think about it – how long can you stand to stick your finger down the back of your throat without gagging or worse? So you basically need to be rendered almost unconscious or insensate in order to tolerate it), and of course you can’t eat or talk as long as you have a tube stuck down your throat. So breathing with a tube is no long-term solution to anything. It’s hardly even a mid-term solution.

So the breathing tube is gone now, and the vigil is on. I am as alert as I can be, given the situation. I don’t necessarily want to be hypervigilant – too much vigilance can be more harmful than helpful, to me and to my dad. Even in his morphine-induced stupor, he needs his space, he needs his dignity. That’s easy to figure out simply by putting myself in his place. I wouldn’t want my son sticking his face in mine talking to me like I’m some kind of idiot when I was trying to … figure out where it is I’m going and how I’m going to get there.

So I remain seated, mostly, at a respectful distance, on alert for changes in his condition, in his breathing, on the watch for when the real struggle and discomfort begins, which is presumably coming within the next day or so, so I can be sure that he gets the “palliative care” (meaning more morphine, from Latin, Morpheus, the god of dreams) he needs when the time comes.

Sweet dreams, father.


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