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5 Things I Learned From Helping My Dad Die

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FATHER HOLDING SONS HAND
Shutterstock / Pavel L Photo and Video

During the summer of 2006, my father suddenly developed a deep, science-fiction-scary cough unlike anything my family had ever heard before. It wasn't the kind of cough that comes with an ordinary cold. It was the kind of cough that makes anyone who hears it -- even strangers in the next aisle over at the grocery store -- nervous. It was a warning. An omen. We just didn't know it.

The cough persisted for months, and after an incorrect diagnosis of pneumonia, in September we finally learned that it was lung cancer. Even now it takes a few seconds for the full meaning of the words "lung cancer" -- and everything that that term brought to and changed in my life -- to register for me.

Exactly seven years ago today, six months after learning that he was sick, my dad died. Those six months were the saddest, strangest months of my life. I moved through them in cartoony slow motion, in New York City, 700 miles away from him and my mother in Wisconsin, where he was fighting the disease that was rotting his lungs and, always hungry for more, slowly clawing its way into the rest of his body. In mid-February he decided to stop fighting the disease -- he decided to die -- and I traveled home to spend his last days with him, my mother and my brothers.

Now each February a sticky dread drips from my brain and collects in my chest, and I spend the following four weeks vacillating between distracting myself from the horror of what happened during my dad's last month on this planet and gently cradling those memories in my head, turning them over again and again so that their jagged edges won't be forgotten.

In honor of my dad, Robert Michelson, one of the most incredible men who ever spent a little time on this planet -- and in honor of the pain and grief and wonder conjured by death -- I am sharing five things that I learned while helping him die.

1. Make it -- all of it -- matter now, because you never know what the future has in store for you.

My father was a successful attorney, and he was brilliant at what he did. His plan was to work until he was at least 85 -- there would be no retiring for him -- and he took great pains to make sure that he stayed in good shape, both physically and mentally. He never smoked a day in his life, rarely drank, religiously walked several miles every day with our dog Harry and swallowed a fistful of vitamins and supplements each morning with breakfast. He read voraciously, wrote op-eds for our local paper and traveled whenever he could, but more than anything, he was genuinely curious about the world and the people around him, and his curiosity was infectious.

He loved my mother with a bright, white-hot kind of love that I haven't seen again since he left. He loved me and my brothers unconditionally, and he made sure we knew we were loved. He asked questions. He gave answers. He got a certain look in his eyes when he was being intentionally provocative, which was often. He hated injustice. When we traveled to big cities, he would carry a wad of dollar bills in his pocket so that he would always have something to give someone living on the streets and looking for a little help. He cried while watching old movies. He was the biggest goofball I have ever met.

My dad's greatest fear was that something would happen to him and he would end up spending his last days suffering. He used to joke -- before the cancer, when he still made jokes -- that when he was a very old man, but not so old that he didn't have his wits about him, he was going to rent a sleek, red convertible and drive it off some cliff in Italy. That was how he wanted to go: instantly, as a flash of chrome and a cloud of expensive smoke, as a fireball -- anything so that he wouldn't wither, so that he wouldn't have to face an end without dignity.

But lung cancer didn't care about any of those things. All of the good karma he had saved up, all the plans he had made, all of his love -- none of it mattered. I learned that the only things that matter are what we are doing now -- today. We never know if there's some tiny, toxic spark making itself at home inside us or someone we love. We never know how much more time we have left.

2. There is a peace that comes from finally facing the end.

When my father found out that he had lung cancer, he was pissed. He was too young; he was too healthy; he didn't deserve this. This was the kind of thing that happened to other people, not to him. And at first he tried fighting back. He visited specialists. He started chemotherapy and radiation. He even decided to try acupuncture, until the practitioner, a cruel man who perhaps thought he was being kind or helpful or professional, asked him, "What's the point? You'll be dead in six months."

That was our first reality check. The second came the day after Thanksgiving, when he received a call telling him that the cancer had spread to his brain. I didn't know this until my mother broke down in the parking lot of our local movie theater later that day and asked me, between violent sobs, "How am I going to do this?" -- "this" being "lose him," "live without him." And, not for the last time, I just silently held her, because there simply was nothing to say.

In February my mother called to tell me that my father wasn't going to fight any longer. I didn't know what I would find when I returned to Wisconsin, but when I arrived home, my father had already been transformed by his decision. The nastiness had vanished, replaced by a calm that I didn't think could exist. He could barely speak by this point, but my brothers and I all piled into his bed just moments after I walked through the door, and he had my mom bring out a beautiful wooden box filled with his prized collection of wristwatches so that we could each pick which ones we wanted. He smiled. He laughed. He coughed. And it was the last time that I truly saw my father -- the man who raised me to be the man I am. It was as if he had been saving up all of his energy so that he could spend one last night with his family without any of the anger or self-pity that had consumed him during the previous six months. Instead he was filled with peace and joy -- words that, up until then, I had only known in the abstract, in the fantasy of Christmas carols and Hallmark cards.

3. Never underestimate the power of art.

Helping my father die meant spending hours and hours doing nothing. My mother and brothers and I took turns lying in his bed with him while he slept or lay awake so that there was always a warm body next to him, so that he knew he was never alone. To pass the time, I decided to read the Tales From the City series by Armistead Maupin. I had heard good things about it, but I had no idea that I would be so wholly sucked into the charming universe that Maupin situated in San Francisco beginning in the '70s. I flew through the series, flooding myself with the lives and problems and loves of people who had never lived, and I considered exactly what it means to live and have problems and love. It was a relief to approach and reflect on those questions and concerns with the help of the characters -- to escape my own life for a few minutes at a time -- and I'm grateful to Maupin for helping structure those endless hours, for providing a goal that I could hold steady and accomplish as the rest of my world backflipped out of orbit, and for the great comfort that his work brought me.

4. We all deserve the right to die.

When my father decided to die, he went on a hunger strike -- just in case the cancer wasn't working quickly enough on its own -- in hopes that he could help bring about the end as quickly as possible. He would drink a little peach nectar a few times a day (now just the thought of the juice and the strangely shaped bottles it came in makes me ill), but other than that, he lay in his bed and waited for death to show up and take him. And it did not happen quickly. What did happen is that he slowly turned into a zombie. Toward the end he mostly just groaned like a mortally wounded animal. I can still hear those sounds in my head. I've given up hoping I will ever not hear them. He also aged decades in just a few days and looked like someone 20 or 30 years older than he was. It was the closest thing to being in a horror movie that I have ever experienced, and there was no one to rescue him or me.

More than anything, he just wanted to die. One day our doorbell rang. Our doorbell never rang, and upon hearing it, my dad roused himself from his half-sleep and asked me, "Is that them?" I didn't know who he was talking about, so I asked, "Is it who, Dad?" He replied, "The people to kill me." Heartbreakingly, he believed that some merry band of Kevorkian-approved doctors had come to euthanize him. As sad and terrifying as it was for me to realize that that was what he believed -- and hoped -- was about to happen, there were even sadder and more terrifying moments to follow, such as when he asked me (and my mother, on separate occasions) to kill him. I don't think I can explain what it feels like to have your father, or what is left of your father, look at you and beg you to kill him -- and for him to genuinely mean it.

I considered it, and I know my mother did too. It would have been easy enough -- by that point we had a reserve of morphine patches large enough to kill a humpback whale, or we could have held a pillow over his face -- but we were both too scared of going to prison if someone found out. So instead I just rubbed his back and whispered my favorite stories about the trips we'd gone on when I was a kid -- adventures in castles, in hot air balloons and under waterfalls, all of us together and healthy and happy -- until he fell back asleep.

One of my greatest regrets -- and something I still struggle with -- is that I didn't honor his request to kill him, that I couldn't end his misery. I wish I had been stronger. Less afraid. Less selfish? But I shouldn't have had to choose, and I shouldn't have to live with that guilt. The right to die humanely shouldn't exist only in our fever dreams.

5. Love is real.

When I was 5 I had cancer too. It was a fairly unusual kind that manifested itself as a tumor in my abdomen, and to treat it I had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. After one of the two surgeries I had, the doctors packed my stomach with gauze and instructed my father to remove it when I returned from the hospital. Shell-shocked by the task set before him, he stood me up in our shower and pulled a seemingly endless stream of gauze from the incision like he was a two-bit magician at a child's birthday party. I remember the sheer tenderness with which he did it, despite his terror and the tears streaming down both our faces.

That is probably my earliest memory of my father's love in action, and it returned to me when I was lying in his bed just a day or two before he finally became a mere shell of himself -- alive but only functionally, with no sign of the man who had once lived inside his body -- and he drew enough breath to whisper, "I hope I was a good father to you." In that instant my heart stopped, and then, just as quickly, it swelled to fill my entire chest -- fill my entire body, fill every moment I had lived up until that point -- and I knew then exactly what was happening and finally came face-to-face with what it means to be loved and to love, and for that to be both everything and still not enough.

I couldn't stop what was happening. I couldn't fix it. I could barely understand it. I just knew I was loved and told him that I was lucky to have spent even a day -- even an hour -- with him.

Less than a week later my dad died.

I miss him. There are days when something incredible or awful happens to me and I want to tell him, but I can't. There have been boyfriends I have loved and boyfriends who have ruined me, jobs that I have nabbed and jobs that I have hated, and other assorted triumphs and nightmares that I wanted him to know about. The reality is that he's gone. He has missed so much, including the man I've grown up to be and how much braver I've become since I last held him, and even dumb things like all my beautiful tattoos, including the ghost on my bicep, which I got for him.

My dad's death was a tragedy. I wouldn't wish the four weeks I spent helping him die on anyone, but I also wouldn't give them up. They're mine. And I learned so much about who I am, who my father was, what it means to love, what it means to lose something you foolishly thought you wouldn't lose and, ultimately, what it means to then have to carry on -- what it means to get up every day and keep going.

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