Six months ago Dad was in pretty good shape for a 91-year-old: taking regular walks, eating well, reading books and magazines, and making sarcastic references to our first Arab-American president. He was well enough to post a Romney bumper sticker on his bookshelf, do the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, and recycle his papers.
Now he's in hospice at the luxurious Grandview Hospital in Sellersville, PA. He mostly sleeps, occasionally coughs, and gargles phlegm in the back of his throat until the nurse suctions it out.
He woke up Sunday and said through his NG tube and oxygen mask, "Let me go. Let me go."
"You want us to let you go, Daddy?" I asked, leaning close to hear his voice over the sound of the oxygen and machines. My tears fell on the sheet covering his scrawny shoulder.
"Yes," he said in a voice obstructed by tubes. "Yes. Let me go." He looked into my eyes, said my name, and knew what he wanted.
Later that same day, he communicated the same desire: "No extremes," Dad said. "No extremes." The tube in his throat obstructed his consonants; I leaned in close and repeated his wish: "You don't want any extreme measures to help you stay alive and get better?"
"No," he said. Then he looked over to Mom, sitting next to his bedside. "Is that OK?" I looked over at her; she nodded mutely, helplessly. She reached out to hold his hand. "I love you, Daddy," she said, and he replied, "I love you, sweetheart."
The hospice nurse came to the room to explain hospice procedures to my dad, my brothers, my mom and me. "We'll stop all medications except those that will help him be more comfortable," she said. She put the papers in front of my dad, and he signed his neat but wobbly full signature. Mom, dazed and unable to comprehend a future without her partner of 64 years, leaned her head against my brother Turtle, who wiped tears from his eyes.
They stopped Dad's meds, and his blood pressure and respiration rate are slowing down. He rests comfortably, but has stopped being able to open his eyes or respond when we talk to him or stroke his head or his arm.
"We're here, Dad," we tell him. "We're letting you go, like you asked. We're going to take care of mom, so you don't need to worry about that."
The nurses say, and we like to believe them, that he can still hear us, and feel comforted by our presence.
"Are you ready to see Jesus, Daddy?" I asked him on Sunday, while he was still alert and able to respond.
"Amen," he said.