I ask him today how he is doing.
“ I’m dying.” he replies.
“Are you dying today?” I ask.
“Well, I don’t think so.” and his eyes twinkle. “But soon.”
My fiercely independent patient is using the walker today… And he is wearing his special garments to prevent embarrassing moments… And he is so very tired that he almost can’t make it back to his room. The last little downward slope in the hallway gives him a boost and the walker nearly runs away with him, like the horse going to the barn. He lets me help him into the bathroom, a first for us after 8 months of him insisting he doesn’t need help.
Today he tells me “I am done”. We talk about the question that Satchel Paige asked- how old would you be, if you didn’t know how old you are?
“Two Hundred” he says without hesitation. (Okay, I think to myself, like the old woman Maria at the end of the classic film, Lost Horizon, he has aged at least a hundred years this past month, and his ragged body looks much older than his 80 years.)
Then he describes to me how his treacherous body keeps going, just like his father’s did until his nearly 100th year, even when it is past time to be finished. Nothing works right anymore. He no longer has anything anyone wants to listen to anymore. He says with a faint smile, “This happens when you get older, no one really wants to hear your stories. You outlive your usefulness”. I, of course, tell him I truly enjoy hearing him tell me about Voltaire’s final days, along with all the other interesting things we talk about.
He tells me “You’re very kind.
I tell him with a smile, “I like you, too.”
We often sit and have these odd conversations, and it crossed my mind today if someone overheard us how strange they might think it was. Me listening while he tells me he just doesn’t want to be here anymore, and doesn’t want to eat or have to be social, he just wants to go to bed and not get up.
“Can’t a person just lie down and not get up when they are done?” I don’t say things like “Oh, of course you want to see people”, or “Of course you have so many reasons to be here”.
I help him into bed; he is very tired. I tell him he can get up later-or not. I tell him to rest well and I’ll see him in a couple of days. He says, “Maybe. But I hope not”.
Are you thinking this sounds like despair? I only heard resignation. I heard him say, “I want to be done” with a sense of completion. I keep thinking of that ridiculous song “…know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run…” * Perhaps this is real wisdom, even in the midst of dementia and decline. So many things that might not be remembered or known anymore, yet recognizing it is time to be done.
He is still teaching me.
(*The Gambler, song by Don Schlitz)