The End of a Life in Photos: Saying Goodbye to Da

My 81 year old father, Da, died last spring.  He was a lion, a character, a flawed King Lear, my anchor.  He taught me much and I am grateful for his lessons.  I miss him.

Because I spent twelve years working professionally with older adults in health care, aging was something he and I spoke of frequently.  Sometimes he would allow me to accompany him to the doctor, though usually not. He used to say that his kids should send him out to sea on a raft if he ever got too old to function or exercise his independence.

My father died like many older Americans are dying these days — entwined in a medical system that is not equipped to cope with the needs or wishes of our older adults, many of whom are kept propped up through ill considered medical interventions.

His last five months were heartbreaking — nothing he would have ever wanted for himself and nothing I would have ever imagined for him.  Two of those months he spent hospitalized (in three separate hospitals) and three were spent in a locked assisted living unit for people with dementia.  He called it a “warehouse.”  He was not wrong.

He did not have dementia and it was only confirmed shortly before his death that the acute and quickly evolving cognitive, behavioral, and neurological changes he experienced in those last months were caused by lung cancer. The same lung cancer that had been treated the previous fall, doctors felt successfully.

He knew he was dying long before I did. He told me one day and, in all sincerity, I tried to comfort him and explain that he was simply going through a difficult period. Sometimes I feel I failed him.  I know that our medical system failed him.

I started photographing him in January 2015 when the sunlight on his leg dangling from his hospital bed struck me as poignant.  I snapped a photo.  I kept snapping photos as the months went on.  He and I talked about the photos, he looked at them sometimes. While we never discussed what I would do with them, he knew why I took them.  To remember.

I am fortunate that my father was a great supporter of my work, my writing — specifically how my husband and I documented our daughter’s cancer online.  He read every word and saw its merit.  I see these photos serving a similar purpose — to educate and encourage a dialogue.  I really think my Dad would get a kick out of that — his stubborn version of having the last word.

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