Learning the hard way the need for end-of-life talks

It should not have come as a surprise to learn, in June 2011, that my father had only a few more weeks to live. After all, he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer nearly 21 years earlier. Yet my father — and, subsequently, his wife and five children — approached his illness as you would an unwanted party guest, best left ignored. 

Any questions about his visits to the oncologist were met with a simple reply, “It was fine.” When he required courses of chemotherapy in later years, he explained them by saying they were maintenance to keep his PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, levels down. 

I don’t believe his refusal to acknowledge the cancer was solely a matter of denial. He simply didn’t have time to dwell on it. At first, he had to see his youngest child — me — get through college. Later, there were grandchildren to cart around on his shoulders and then countless plays, recitals and sporting events to attend. In the last decade of his life, he took on the role of caregiver for my mother as she struggled with a variety of illnesses. 

My father was not one for hugging and signs of affection. It was through his actions that he showed his love. If any of his children needed help with moving into a new home, he was sure to be there. Six years ago, when I entered the Catholic Church, my parents drove over from South Bend, Ind., to Fort Wayne to attend the Easter Vigil, despite the late hour and the difficulty he had getting my mother in and out of the car. And even though he was Protestant, he was a subscriber to OSV Newsweekly, just to show his support for my work. He was always there to lend a hand and to give guidance. In many ways, he was the center of our family. 

So I, for one, didn’t think much of it when he emailed my siblings and me in March 2011 to let us know he’d been battling a bladder infection. I was shocked, however, by how much weight he’d lost when I saw him a couple of weeks later. He’d lost his appetite and was relying on nutritional shakes to get his sustenance. By mid-May, he was hospitalized with a full-blown urinary tract infection. After a lengthy hospital stay, he went to a nursing home for rehabilitation, but it eventually became clear to us that he needed hospice care, rather than rehab, as his cancer had taken control of his body. 

While my father had made sure that my mother would be secure financially after his death, the two of them apparently had little to no end-of-life discussions. And with him slipping in and out of lucidity, it was impossible to ask him about practical matters — What did he want us to do about the pets? (I ended up with the two dogs, while two of my brothers took in the cats.) Where was the title to his Crown Victoria? (My brother just found it a month ago.) — as well as spiritual matters, such as what readings he wanted at his funeral and where he wanted to be buried. 

Furthermore, even when he was coherent, he would not — probably could not — acknowledge to his family that he was dying, even though the hospice nurse told us he had spoken with her about this reality. That made it hard to utter the words I longed to say to him about how much I appreciated all he had done for me throughout my life. Perhaps I was just a coward, but I didn’t want to say anything that would agitate him. 

I write these words not to criticize my father, but rather to urge others to face these topics before a crisis occurs. Witnessing a loved one’s death is agonizing enough without dealing with the anguish of making last-minute decisions and guessing the deceased person’s intentions. 

Still, as a Catholic, I believe in life after death and the Communion of Saints, so I know I can pray for and talk to my father still. So, permit me to write the words that I longed to say before his death 14 months ago: “Thank you, Dad, for all your care and support. I’ll never stop loving you.” 

Sarah Hayes is OSV’s presentation editor.