“Faither” was a wonderful man, with dancing cornflower blue eyes and a wicked sense of humour. He had never known his own father, who died in the trenches of World War 1. His mother died giving birth to him, so he had spent his formative years in Dr. Barnardo’s Children’s Home, where he learnt the importance of education.
He was also taught his place. As an orphan, he was told, he belonged in the lower echelons of society, and he should not expect to be able to rise through the ranks. Talented, well read, and an enormous giver, he remained a bus driver all his days. He had worked: he had provided for his family: he was respected by his passengers. He had served to the best of his ability.
He had discovered the magic of “enough”, and subsequently was the world’s most contented man.
Now, approaching death, he gave consideration to achieving a good ending.
SUCH A SIMPLE THING
“Do you mind if I talk to you, lass?” Faither asked me one night. “I want to know if you’ll help me. I need to know if I can count on you.”
I speechlessly nodded my assent. He had oesophageal cancer, and he had been staying in our home for the last few months, so that my husband and I could support both him and his wife. Now, as he embarked on his last few weeks of life, he wanted to explain simply what mattered to him.
Quietly and deliberately, he began:
“I want to die here, in your home, with you to looking after me. I do not want to go into hospital again. More than anything, I want to die with dignity. Can you do that for me? I know I am asking a lot.”
“Oh, Faither,” I replied thoughtfully. “You’re saying that you don’t want any further treatment?”
“That is correct,” he answered, clearly. “I’m satisfied that everything that can be done has been done. I want to be able to choose my end.”
“But when the time comes, you may not be lucid enough to express these wishes? Is that what you mean?” I clarified.
“I trust you, lass,” he responded. “If I am unable to say “I’ve had enough!” will you say it for me?” he appealed.
“That’s a whole bundle of trust. Are you sure?” I asked, now overwhelmed by the burden of responsibility.
“I couldn’t be more positive. I’ve watched you caring for others. You won’t get it wrong. I will be much more confident that I’ll not be required to suffer any humiliation or distress.”
“And you are asking me to call Time?”
He insisted that this was his wish. I was both honoured and terrified.
DYING WITH DIGNITY
However, I set out to do the best I could.
The objective of Dying with Dignity was accepted and embraced by family and friends. They all welcomed the fact that death could be discussed openly. With this openness and an aim in view, relatives from far and near came to say a relaxed goodbye. I offered them as much time as they wanted or needed: it did not need to be rushed.
Friends and relatives arrived in ones or twos, for either a few hours or a couple of days, over a period of 3-4 weeks.
My home rapidly turned into a sardine tin. It was indeed fortunate that I worked in the hospital on night duty and that we had two spare bedrooms and a bed settee. It was challenging, coping with the occupants of this ever -changing house. But it was company for my mother in law and took the intensity out of her concern. Faither was happier than I had ever seen him, his positive attitude affecting the visitors, and it was wonderful when the house rang with his laughter at the shared memories his visitors revitalised. Emotionally and physically he was almost transformed: he was distracted from his pain and discomfort, and his wife was supported in her anxiety.
One morning, as my shift was finishing at the hospital, my husband phoned me. Faither had had a dreadful night. Should he stay off work?
“No, just go.” I replied. “I’ll stay up with him. Don’t worry, I’ll give you plenty notice,” I responded.
I sat with Faither, when I got home. His breathing had become laboured and he was only able to take sips of melted ice from a teaspoon. I realised with utter clarity that we were approaching the end. When I was certain “Time” should be called, I invited my GP, a tremendously caring character, to pay a house call. He arrived in minutes.
“Och, that’s some case of pneumonia you’ve got there, lass” he said, “We’d better get him to hospital.” He drew out his writing implements.
“No,” I said, firmly. “He doesn’t want or need any more drips or antibiotics. I know that would make him temporarily better, but then he’ll start going downhill again. The man is done. What he needs now is rest.”
Our friendly, family doctor looked at me, startled.
“You mean you don’t want me to treat him?” he asked
“You’ve got it in one,” I replied.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked.
This question jarred terribly, and I had to leave the room to regain my composure. His wife came after me, begging me to convey my remit. As I struggled with my feelings, the doctor joined us in the kitchen.
“Well, you appear to be united.” he said, after I had explained, and he had observed my mother-in-law nodding her head enthusiastically. “I’ll have to get the chemist to order some Morphine for me.”
I knew that the stall on the Morphine was to give everyone time to consider– probably including himself. He read my look, and was quick to reassure.
“Don’t worry; I’ll be back at 11a.m.”
“I don’t mind giving it” I offered.
“NO. I’ll give it. It is my responsibility,” he answered. So saying, he departed.
I phoned and told my husband to be home by 11a.m. He arrived, and we gathered in the bedroom. At the arranged time, the doctor returned, and Dignity was duly delivered.
I had never before seen the unusual short term effect that it had. Faither seemed to recognise that a bridge had been crossed, and he appeared, briefly, much more alert and aware. Simultaneously, contentment settled on him.
“I think I’ll have a cigarette now” he announced, importantly.
“Och, you know you shouldn’t.” said my mother-in law “It’s bad for you!”
I smiled gently at her, and lit it for him. After two puffs, and a few ironic remarks, he handed it back to me.
“That’s enough, lass,” he said.
I took it to stub it out.
“Nip it” he suddenly instructed – meaning he may come back for it later.
I nipped it.
“I think I’ll have a wee sleep now, lass,” he suggested.
I made him comfortable, and he gave me a kiss.
There were no more words. A few minutes later, he was gone.
All his wishes, stated simply, fulfilled.
©Linda Jane McLean