Good News, Bad News

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My father had major heart surgery yesterday to reconstruct his mitral valve. It was done robotically with five small incisions. For an 87-year-old man, who is less than 36 hours out of surgery, he is doing amazingly well.

My aunt, who is 88 years old, was released today from the same hospital my father is in. She has congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation, and a spine that is collapsing. She cries all the time, asking for an escape from the hell she has found herself in. That hell is called an assisted-living facility. She is angry; lashes out at the world constantly; laments that her mother, long dead, has left her in this hell. There’s no consoling her. It is exhausting.

After visiting my father in the hospital, who is in good spirits, and feels blessed by the successful surgery he had yesterday, we took my aunt from the hospital, in my car, to the assisted living facility she now resides. Moving my aunt causes her tremendous pain. She is unable to walk or even stand for any length of time. Once we got her to the assisted living facility she began to cry, inconsolably, asking for escape. She said that she would crawl out of the facility, but even crawling is beyond her physical capabilities at this point.

The contrast between my aunt and father is both painful and fascinating. Watching two individuals near the end of their life is difficult. It is hard to imagine my aunt will live out the next year. Her body is degenerating rapidly. My father on the other hand, through the successful reconstruction of his mitral valve, has a new lease on life. He is very excited and hopeful.

Life in a progressive facility, which begins with independent living, through assisted-living and ends at hospice care or death, is a living hell. My aunt is trapped. Her body ceases to function. Service people have to help her from the wheelchair to the toilet. She needs people to help her wipe her self when she goes to the bathroom. She can no longer do what people call, “the daily functions of living”. Everybody talks to her in a happy, sing-song voice, which makes me what to throw up. My aunt just wants to be left alone. She longs for escape. But no escape comes.

None of us, not my parents, nor me, or my four siblings, are prepared to have my aunt come live with them. I imagined at one point having her come down to Washington to live. I thought I could rent a small apartment in my building for her. One close to me, so we could see each other easily, but separate, so I could have my life and privacy. I would need to hire 24-hour caregivers. But then, as I begin to plan out the details in my mind, I realized, I can not do It. I am not prepared to give up my new, hard-won gay life to become her caregiver.

But my aunt’s anguish is real. There is no escape from the hell that she is in except death. The other residents in the facility are also mostly out of it. They sleep in wheelchairs. They gaze off into space with blank expressions. Many do not talk except ask for help in their own escape. My aunt is unable, both physically and mentally, to take her own life now. Today she said, “I should have taken my life years ago when I could, but I was too weak.” She laments that her mother has not come for her, “Mother why do you leave me here? Come take me away.” My grandmother died in 2004 but is never far from my aunt’s thoughts.

There’s nothing I can say to ease my aunt’s pain. All my words fall flat. And the truth is, she is too caught up in her own repetitive, overpowering thoughts, that ties her up in a never-ending circle of anguish, to hear my words. 

Many of the things my aunt said today, rung deeply true to me. But other things that came out of her mouth are pure fantasy. She looked around the room we were in and said, “I was raped in this room.” I said, “No you were not, you have never been in this room before.” And true to form she said, “Oh yes I was. You do not know.”

My mother tries to reason with my aunt, but there is no reasoning with someone who is not mentally stable. I had to tell them both, at one point when my mother tried to reason with my aunt and she fought back, to stop talking, which they finally did only when I raised my voice.

So I am grateful that my father is doing so well. I was not ready to lose him today. On the other hand, the continuous decline of my aunt is very difficult and sad to watch. It was exhausting being with her today. I miss the times when my aunt and I would talk on the phone for hours about things in the world we cared about. It was so much fun. But now she can only complain in anger about her situation in a repetitive nonstop way. It’s very sad.

So, as I titled this essay, it was good news and bad news today. The good news is that my father is recovering extremely well. The bad news is my aunt is declining rapidly. There is nothing more to say, but to see what tomorrow brings.

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