My Dad's Final Days
We had a feisty relationship for years, but at the end of his life, we talked about how much we loved each other
Editor’s note: Ken Dychtwald, a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging and founder and CEO of the Age Wave research and consulting firm, has just written a memoir, "Radical Curiosity: One Man's Search for Cosmic Magic and a Purposeful Life." In this poignant excerpt, he writes about how his dad "lived his life on his own two feet" and told his son he didn't want to "go out on my hands and knees."
I grew up in in the 1950s and '60s in a lower- to middle-class, mostly blue-collar community in Newark, N.J. We didn't have much, but neither did anyone else.
My Father's Wish When I Was Young
My father, Seymour, was a fiercely hardworking guy who wanted to be successful. For him, work wasn't about "finding his bliss," it was about being a responsible husband and father. His dad had skipped out on him, his brothers, sister and mother for almost 10 years during the Depression. In contrast, my dad wished to be a reliable family man and wanted our family to be living the American dream.
He got depressed and angry — very depressed and very angry.
Ultimately, my father rose from selling clothing and home furnishings out of the back of his truck to owning and operating a successful chain of women's clothing stores, The Dress Rack. When they were in their mid-60s, my folks retired and relocated to South Florida.
Throughout my life, my dad and I had a loving, but feisty relationship. He was a very opinionated guy (I guess I am, too) and was skeptical of many of my lifestyle and career moves — from New Jersey to California, from studying physics to the field of psychology and then to gerontology. But he had great love for my wife Maddy and our two kids, Casey and Zak – his only grandchildren. And he eventually developed a deep respect for what I made of myself.
His Health Reversals
My parents' life was progressing just fine, but then in the 1990s, my father started to lose his vision and with it, control over much of his life. At first, his diabetes-related macular degeneration made it hard for him to read. But as the disease progressed, he no longer could write, balance his checkbook, drive his car or find his clothes. Sadly, during that period, Alzheimer's was chiseling away at my mother's mind and her memories.
My dad loved my mom so much that he railed against the dissolution of her memory and her mind. He got depressed and angry — very depressed and very angry.
As time passed and my mom became more confused, my father began telling me that he was thinking of taking his own life in partnership with my mom.
"We have always loved each other, but the wheels on both of our carts are falling off," he said. "If I die before Mom, she'll struggle terribly, and if she dies before me, I'll go crazy. Just as we've lived together, we want to die together."
That was quite a lot for me to digest.
One night, he asked me, "If I take my own life and Mom's, would that be brave or cowardly?" I said, "I sure don't know, Dad. If I was in your situation, I can't imagine what I'd think or do. But I might come to the same conclusion that you have."
My Fearful Nights
So, for almost a year, every night I'd go to sleep not knowing if my parents would be alive in the morning. But my father never took the action he had considered.
Then, in 2013, my brother Alan called me in a state of distress to report that our dad's blood sugar was going haywire. Usually, it was around 120; that day, it was 600. And to make things worse, he couldn't get his balance and had fallen on his face, giving himself a big gash on his forehead.
Alan was already on his way to fly to Florida and see how he could help our folks out. I packed my bags and headed east from California for the same reason.
Dad's Body Was Shutting Down
The next morning, my dad's doctor immediately had him admitted to intensive care. He had internal bleeding and had suffered a mild heart attack: his body was shutting down.
In intensive care, there was a tangle of wires and tubes all over him, and my dad was aggressively pulling them all out. As a cantankerous and sightless man, in a state of extreme agitation, not knowing what had happened to him or who these strange people were who were putting tubes and needles in his wrists, his mouth, his chest and his penis, my father was clearly going mad.
He called out to Alan and me: "What's going on? Get me out of here! Get me out of here!"
When he realized that his two boys were there for him, he called out to Alan and me: "What's going on? Get me out of here! Get me out of here!"
My dad settled down a bit, and Alan and I went home to see our mom. Then at around 10:00 pm, the phone rang. It was our dad, and he was pleading with us to come back and rescue him.
Alan and I shot back to the hospital and went into our anguished father's room. We held him and tried to calm him down. He was calling out, "Where am I? Who are all the people around me? What's happening?"
His arms, chest, face and hair were covered with blood because he kept pulling out his IV lines. The nurse rudely said to my brother and me: "Your father is really losing it."
In the morning, after a torturous night for both my dad and my brother who stayed with him and a sad night for me and for my mom who was confused but kept asking "Where's Seymour?" I returned to the hospital and we asked: "Dad, what do you want?"
Dad's Final Wish
"I'm scared," he said, "but I know this: I've lived my whole life on my own two feet, and I'm not going out on my hands and knees. Help me, Kenny and Alan. Help me. Please help me bring this to an end."
Shortly after that exchange, Alan and I met with our dad's physician. He was a kind and decent man who asked us if we wanted our dad to remain in intensive care or if we preferred to shift him to a hospice care ward in the hospital.
Were we going to battle to keep our dad alive for a few more days, albeit in a ghastly, ghoulish fashion? Or were we prepared to make him comfortable and allow him to die a good death? What an emotional and yet simple decision that needed to be made, right then and there.
We thought: "What would he want us to do?"
We immediately had Dad transferred to the hospice floor, where the kind nurses and aides removed all the IV wires and tubes, lovingly sponged all of the blood off him and even gave him a shave and combed his hair. They asked him what his favorite music was and then put a Frank Sinatra album on the CD player.
Next, they began a low dose of morphine to ease his anxiety. My wife Maddy and Casey and Zak all dropped what they were doing to fly to Florida and be with my dad.
Even though we had often butted heads, there was not one instance in my entire life when he wasn't there for me when I truly needed him.
As I contemplated the end of my father's life, I reflected than even though we had often butted heads, there was not one instance in my entire life when he wasn't there for me when I truly needed him.
My Motorcycle Ride Away From Him
I vividly remembered a weekend in 1971 when I rode my motorcycle from Allentown, Pa. to visit my folks in their new home in Springfield, N.J. At that point, I had already tuned in, turned on and dropped out; grown my hair and beard; started wearing an earring and cultivated many viewpoints about life that were far more "alternative" to ones my father strongly held. He must have thought I had lost my mind — while I believed I was finding it.
Late that Saturday night in 1971, my mom had gone to bed and my father and I were arguing about something. He started barking at me with criticisms about my life and friends. I squared off with him, nose to nose. I felt: "You don't know who I am — you don't get me!" I don't remember what we were fighting over, but I do remember it's the closest I'd ever come to telling him to go screw himself and punching him in the face.
So things wouldn't get completely out of control, I turned on my heels, went to the bedroom and slammed the door. Feeling I had to get out of there and not wanting to confront him again in the living room, I jumped out the bedroom window. Okay, it wasn't that high — maybe six feet above the ground. It was a dark and rainy winter night, and all I had on were my jeans, a T-shirt and a trench coat. With sheets of rain pouring down, it was going to take me about two hours to ride my motorcycle back to my apartment in Pennsylvania.
As I careened down the highway, I was crying and furious. I was thinking, "The hell with you — I'm going to do what I'm going to do with my life." The road was wet and slippery, and riding the motorcycle was a harrowing experience. Finally, at around 2 in the morning, I pulled off Highway 78 at the Fifteenth Street exit in Allentown and took the back road to my apartment. Exhausted, I parked my motorcycle in front.
Although it was pitch black, I noticed there was a car way down at the corner. It was moving slowly, but the lights weren't on. As I walked across the street to get to my apartment, I looked at this car as it was turning around. It was my dad. He had followed me all the way to Pennsylvania to make sure I was safe, and now he was silently turning around to drive all the way home.
How to Show Him Proper Respect?
Now nearly 50 years later, wanting to show him proper respect and kindness but not knowing how I should handle the situation with my dad nearing his death, I called one of my closest friends, Stuart Pellman, who was a bit older than me and had already dealt with the death of both of his parents.
He wisely told me, "Get one-on-one time with your dad and tell him everything you need to tell him. Even if he's unconscious, tell him you love him, ask him to forgive you for anything you may have ever done to trouble him. Tell him you forgive him for anything he might have ever done to upset you, and then tell him you'll always remember him."
And that's what I did.
I sat beside my dad and held him and told him how much I loved him, and he came awake and kissed me. He told me how much he loved me. Then we forgave each other and even laughed about all the times we had fought over the years.
I told him I'd always remember him. We held each other for a long while, and then I left the room and allowed my brother some privacy to do the same.
Then my mom came to his bedside and we all left the room, but we could see that she was holding and kissing him, and he was crying and telling her how much he loved her. She asked us to take a picture as she gave him her final kiss goodbye. Later that day, as Maddy, Casey, and Zak arrived and entered his room, he awakened and each of them got private time with Grandpa.
Our Last Conversation
That night, after the other members of my family had gone home, I joined my dad for a very intense and private conversation.
I said, "Dad, you've never asked me what I think happens when a person dies."
"I'd like to know what you think about that, Kenny," he responded. "Because I've begun to see my deceased brothers and sister and they're reaching out to me."
My dad had no religious beliefs, but I had some. So I said, "Dad, I don't know this for sure, but I believe when a person passes, there is another plane that presents itself. In that place are all the people you have known and loved."
As I began to describe this to him, he calmed down and started to cry. Then he turned toward me and told me he was ready.
I asked him if I could record the rest of our exchange on my phone so I could always have it to watch when I missed him. He said okay, and this is what transpired:
Ken: "Dad, you know that what's going to be next is going to be beautiful and your vision's going to be back and you're going to be a beautiful young man again."
Dad: "I'm ready for that, Kenny. I'm ready."
Ken: "And you know we all love you."
Dad: "I know it, Kenny."
Ken: "And you've always loved us."
Dad: "Right. That's true."
Ken: "So, what you'll need to do is to let go and just surrender and not worry about anything because Alan and Mom and I and Maddy and Zak and Casey are going to be OK. Everything is going to be looked after. All we need is for you to be relaxed and calm and just drift off into the white light. Can you do that, Dad?"
Ken: "I love you, Pops."
Dad: "I love you, Kenny."
My father died peacefully that night. With help from all of us, he went out on his own two feet.
Ultimately, even with all his frustration, anger, and talk of suicide, my dad died a good death. At the end, his pain was minimal. His mind was calm. He knew how much we loved him. He found a way to think about leaving his body as not being frightening. He had even thought he was catching glimpses of his siblings Milton, Carl and Ethel, and his best friend and brother-in-law, Marty Marcus.
And although he had been blind for years, at the very end, he began to describe beautiful waterfalls, flowers, birds and castles.
When my time comes, I hope that Maddy will kiss me goodbye and at least one of my kids — maybe even both — will be there to lovingly guide me out of my body.
(Excerpted from "Radical Curiosity: One Man's Search for Cosmic Magic and a Purposeful Life" by Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D, with the permission of Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2021 by Ken Dychtwald.)