Considering Ohio

An aging parent simply wants to go home

My friend was insistent about wanting to leave. “I have to move back to Ohio,” she said, “back to the farm.” Her son has tried time and again to explain why, given her age and declining health, this isn’t a practical option. She is 92.

My father said similar things before he died, a few months short of that same age. Confined to a nursing home, and quite furious at his loss of independence, he insisted and at times commanded that he be released. His sites were not set on Ohio, but rather on a town not far to the east where he’d lived as a child. At first he simply saw himself freely walking the streets, in defiance of his wheelchair, but when questioned as to how he would live, he amended his plan to include being housed by a friendly librarian.

My brother relentlessly challenged the unreality of my father’s dreams, attempting to summon the level-headed and practical approach to life he’d always shown. In an unexpected twist, however, my father devised increasingly complex versions of the reality he so desperately wanted to see. He said he could lie in a dresser drawer, for example, have the dresser removed from his room, and then once outside, escape from the drawer and be free.

We all knew the freedom he really desired – the freedom of a man 40 years younger, who could come and go as he pleased. He wanted freedom from the nursing home, from the body that could no longer walk and barely hear or see. He wanted to be the head of a household, to have a wife and children who would care for him. He wanted to be young again, to no longer be 93.

I have a number of friends with parents in this age range, and they all, in various ways, cling mightily to the way they once were or dreamed they would be. Their children are exhausted, saddened, and confused at the change, all adamantly vowing to not be “like that” when they age. I wonder if our parents made that same vow. I guess we may never know.

It seems that in some ways the miracles of medicine have grown faster than the wisdom as to how and when they should be applied. In the “old days,” though I say that without having the slightest idea of where the line between then and now should be drawn, I imagine that many a Grandma or Grandpa fell sweetly asleep while sunning in their rocking chair on the porch, and just never woke up. Quiet, natural, hopefully as painless as a transition could be.

I imagine that when their senses began to fade – when the sight, smell, mobility, and hearing that kept them tethered and engaged in this plane had ever-so gently stopped pulling on their attention – they’d drawn inside themselves to a deeper place, and become kind dispensers of both wisdom and love. No antibiotics, CPR or IVs revived them again and again; no meals were forced upon them. They did what was natural, and when their bodies wound down they simply drifted away.

So in this age, for those we keep wakening, long past the time they were meant to rest, it’s understandable that they might want to live on a sweet farm Ohio, or retreat to the loving ministration of a childhood librarian friend. What else is left? The current legal and ethical quandary surrounding when to medically intervene will be with us for a while. Perhaps we have yet to discover the greater wisdom in keeping people alive beyond the point they can enjoy life. It’s hard to know. Perhaps we, as a society, need to stop fearing death – to embrace it as being a natural step into another realm; to stop seeing death as a failure of medicine to succeed; to stop using medicine as a panacea for our fear of the unknown.

So what is left? For now, kindness towards those who are suffering. For the future, perhaps developing a personal philosophy and faith that will sustain us to the end; to find strength and peace that will endure when facing the unimaginable; that will remain when social facades and the desire to spend energy sustaining them have long slipped away.

Or one could, I suppose, simply move to Ohio; to be the person we've always wanted to be; and to live fully the life we've been given.

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