Tomorrow I am going to drive in to my father’s aged care facility and discuss palliative care options with the staff. I knew this day would come, perhaps thought it would come more quickly, but it has finally arrived as 2016 itself ends. I fully expected Dad to be dead by the middle of the year, but many a celebrity, fitter and more celebrated than he, passed away before Dad had the chance to do so.
In the warrior cultures of the past the goal was to die heroically. In the worrier culture of the present the goal is to die with dignity, a euphemism for controlling life’s final hours rather than giving in to the realisation that when it comes to death we have next to no control at all.
I went to visit Dad on Christmas day with Mum. Mum is dad’s first wife – his spurned wife – yet who, because of her love of Jesus, loves him still. Dad has made peace with her and with God, yet has lived in that twilight land of too much regret to enable him to fully drink from the foundation of rediscovered grace. Actions do have consequences, one of them being the inability to forgive oneself no matter how much God has forgiven.
Tired and full as I was after preaching Christmas morning and then Jill and I hosting Christmas lunch I looked for Dad in the lounge of the facility. Not there. We went to his room and looked at his bed. Not there either. Oh, wait a minute, he was. It’s just that the sheets were so flat, and the pillow turned away towards the wall, that the bed looked empty. There on Christmas Day 2016, my once rather portly father was reduced to skin and bone, drifting in and out of a deep sleep or stupor.
I remember when Dad was first institutionalised. We would walk past rooms in the locked ward and glimpse at virtual corpses lying on the lowest setting the bed could go to, unresponsive, unmoving, unsettling, just weeks to live.
Back then Dad had a cane to help him walk around. The cane led to a walking frame with wheels. The walking frame with wheels led to a walking frame without wheels because the wheels got ahead of him and he’d fall over. The walking frame without wheels led to a wheelchair. The wheelchair led to a bed chair. The bed chair led to a bed on the lowest setting. And now other people walk past his room glimpsing at a virtual corpse.
But Dad is not dead – yet. True, Dad cannot talk, cannot move and cannot feed himself. But he can still smile if he sees you in the room. At least in the mornings he can. Once it’s past midday he’s gone for all money and all you get is a blank stare. There’s only so much small talk you can do in that setting.
But he is not dead and we do not intend to kill him. The staff do not intend to kill him, and every day I am grateful for the God or Allah fearing migrants who grow up in cultures that respect the elderly, and who undertake with nobility the tasks rich Westerners who cower from death have outsourced to them.
Each time I visit I sign the register with all of the usual guilt that comes with trying to eke out an hour at least, knowing my brevity will be recorded for all the staff to see. My visiting has not been up to scratch this past six months due to busyness, illness (his and mine), and the stuff of life. Meantime Dad is doing the stuff of death. Slowly.
Australian media personality Andrew Denton scorns the religious voice in the public square in his push for a more robust euthanasia policy in Australia. One, say, a bit more like Canada’s, in which dissenting doctors risk their licence to practice should they not refer on to someone who will do the harm they resolutely refuse to practice. And in a cruel, pernicious, twist, the price of palliative care in Canada is being pushed beyond that of many elderly people. You can almost see the ad campaign now: “Not Healthy? Then Die with Dignity – For The Sake of Your Family’s Financial Health.”
That sounds heartless and monstrous and unlikely. All death culture statements do when said for the first time. But say them often enough, promote them well enough, campaign for them with enough stories from famous people who have watched loved ones die horribly, and they start to stick like burrs in our imaginations. Start to gain traction and plausibility. And given how busy we all are and how expensive the cost-of-living is, why make the cost of dying more than it should be. That’s the reasoning.
Andrew Denton doesn’t get religion. Doesn’t get the spiritual. Doesn’t get that we live in a pluralist culture not merely a secular one. The likes of Andrew Denton believe in the quality of human life, so they push for dying with dignity. They do not realise that death is itself the undignified thing, present only because dignified humanity has fallen into sin’s indignity.
God-fearers on the other hand believe in the dignity of human life, so we maintain as much quality as we can all the way until that final breath. Quality is something we impose on a human life; one man’s quality is another man’s lack of it. But dignity? Not ours to confer, not ours to assume and not ours to take away. Imago Dei hangs right on in there until that final breath. It’s no small thing that I visited Dad on Christmas Day, the day we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, God made flesh, putting his stamp of dignity upon humanness once and for all.
Dad’s second wife came to visit him two days ago. They hadn’t seen each other in eleven years. Better late than never. It was painful for her by all accounts. But necessary. Bittersweet I suppose too. Dad smiled at her. There’s something dignified about letting God’s grace determine the timing of everything, the closure, the mending, or at least the rapprochement, within relationships.
It’s at times such as this that the sickly sweet smell of hospital products, the gut-churning odour of soiled residents, the penetrating olfactory assault of hand-wash, fade away, and in the midst of the grief you catch a whiff of the sweet savour of God’s grace towards saved wretches such as we, who, though we die, will yet live again with a dignity and a quality of life that we can barely imagine.