Fathom Mag

A Tribute to My Sisters

Published on:
September 12, 2022
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4 min.
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My two sisters, Susan and Dottie, work with the hospice nurse to give my father a sponge bath. Susan is a nurse. She’s taken leave from work to care for my father just as my wife’s sister had taken care of her mother, and my friend’s sisters took care of their mothers.

My father is skeletal. Ribs protrude like the rungs of a ladder.  His legs are wooden and shiny as if shellacked. When he breathes, there’s a rattle. 

Two weeks prior, Susan had an ambulance deliver my father to her apartment from a nursing rehab. The doctors said it was a matter of days before he would pass away. My father had stopped eating. His doctors recommended a feeding tube, but my dad remained mentally sharp, and he was adamant—no feeding tube, and “do not resuscitate.” My father, my sisters, and I had all learned from our experience with my mother.

She’s taken leave from work to care for my father just as my wife’s sister had taken care of her mother, and my friend’s sisters took care of their mothers.

My mother had gone into the hospital for an operation on her kidneys, but complications ensued.  She had her gall bladder removed; then she needed an operation on her heart. One day we walked into the hospital to find her hooked up to a feeding tube despite the fact that we had told her doctor she did not want one.  “It could help her recover,” he said to us. Then my sisters convinced my dad to allow it. It is one thing to request no feeding tube before it’s nestled into the body. After it’s there, someone must require the doctors to remove it placing the onus on the suffering family.

My mother did not recover. Instead, over a period of months, the life in her slowly extinguished while being shuffled between the hospital and a nursing home. The experts counseling us were of course profiting from her treatment. At first, they were paid by Medicaid and then by my father. The last nursing home my mother stayed in was filled four to a room with dependent elderly. Most were on feeding tubes, suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. My father had no intention of ending up in that situation. 

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My father outlived my mother by two years. After my mother died, I helped him move out of the spacious two-bedroom apartment they had lived in together and into a 300-square-foot one-bedroom in an assisted living apartment complex. My sister Dottie would visit him there and take him for walks during the week. My wife and I would treat him to breakfast or dinner out on Saturdays. He liked to try new food so we’d go to a Thai or Vietnamese or Indian restaurant. He seemed to enjoy that. My other sister, Susan, would visit him on Sundays and take him to mass. 

My father was a quiet, loyal guy who did not make new friends easily and the few friends he did have had died. We were told that he usually ate by himself in the common dining room. One of my aunts also lived in the same assisted living apartment complex, but she was a little too cheery for him. Soon after he moved in, he sold his car after getting pulled over by police several times for missing stop signs and running through red lights. He had also owned motorboats for most of his adult life, but those were all long gone. He didn’t have a lot on his plate.

It became clear to my sisters and me that he was depressed. My mother was the upbeat one who loved family parties, drives to the shore, dinners out. He had devoted himself to taking care of her, especially at the end of her life, when he spent a lot of time bringing her to doctors, picking up her medicine, and keeping her company. A happily-married couple can become overly dependent on each other and that was the case with my parents. Once she died, he seemed a little lost. Taking care of my mother had given his life purpose, and now he was like a rudderless boat. 

My sisters and I convinced him to take anti-depressants and to follow a routine of getting out for a walk every day. With the support he was getting from us, and the medication, his mood began to improve.  

For about a week, with help from my sister Dottie, she fed him and cared for him, and he seemed to be recovering.

Just after his eighty-seventh birthday, he seemed to be emerging from depression when he began to fall. First, he bruised his arm. Next, he broke a couple of ribs. The third time he cracked vertebrae. In the hospital, he contracted pneumonia. He was transferred to a rehab facility, and that’s when he stopped eating and my sister Susan had him delivered to her apartment.

She set him up in the living room. For about a week, with help from my sister Dottie, she fed him and cared for him, and he seemed to be recovering. He started eating again, sitting up and talking, and, with my sisters’ help, he was able to get up out of bed and sit in a chair. He was visited by his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. Then, he appeared to decide he was ready to go; he stopped eating altogether and began to fade away.  

So, I was there, that Sunday, two weeks after he arrived at my sister’s apartment, as a visitor. He was on morphine and seemed to be asleep although Susan said he could hear us. Hearing, she said, is the last sense to go. When it was time to change him, she asked me to step out of the room. This was apparently to protect me from seeing my dad naked. When I returned, I held his hand a said a few words to him. That night, a few hours after I had left, my father died.

In some ways, remembering our family’s story of loss feels like telling a cautionary tale about experiences with doctors, hospitals, and nursing homes, but mostly it is a tribute to my sisters for doing what each of us would like done for us in our last moments. They both found a way to give my father the how and where he wanted when he was ready to go. And it’s a tribute to all those daughters and nurses who care for our mothers and fathers, who feed them and change them and hold their hands until the end. 

Ed Meek
Ed Meek writes poetry, short stories, essays and book reviews. His work has appeared in The Sun, The Baltimore Review, The North American Review, The Boston Globe Magazine. His latest book of poems is "High Tide". He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with his wife Elizabeth and their dog Mookie. You can find him on Twitter @emeek and on his website www.edmeek.net.
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Cover image by Micheile Dot Com.

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