Fairness Is The Devil’s Promise

I was at the library yesterday, writing and generally minding my own business, when I overheard a grown man at the checkout desk say, “But it’s not fair!”  

I did not hear what the librarian said back to him. I really wanted to but alas, her words were lost in the noise of the crowd. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that libraries have become boisterous social halls these days. Talk about not fair.  

Scene inside the library at lunchtime. No one can shut up.

You know what else isn’t fair? Life. Or, at least it seems not-fair to us mere humans, with our lack of understanding of so much of our existence. Disease isn’t fair. The distribution of wealth isn’t fair. Bad people winning and good people losing, not fair not fair not fair.  

I eventually left the library and went back to work, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this guy and his complaint. Uttered to a librarian, no less. What could possibly be not fair in a library? You take what you want, for free. You bring it back when you’re done. Sure, they fine you if you’re a day late, but what’s so unfair about that? You knew the due date. It’s perfectly reasonable. Dammit, I wish I’d heard the rest of that conversation. 

Here’s a conversation I did hear: later that afternoon, my phone rang. Dad’s nursing home. “Hi, Melissa, no reason to panic, it’s nothing bad,” said one of my favorite nurses. 

Me, when they tell me not to panic.

“Okay,” I said. “What is it?” 

“Well, your dad fell out of his wheelchair,” she told me. “But he’s fine. He was trying to pick up potato chip crumbs. You know how he gets.” 

I do know how he gets. If there is a crumb or a scrap of paper or straw wrapper anywhere on the floor, he must clean it up, stat. I pictured him, leaning out of the wheelchair with no sense of his own tipping point, then tumbling to the floor, an old man, fallen.  

For whatever reason, at that very moment I thought of one of my favorite scenes from Frasier. Frasier, trying to prove that Michael Keaton’s wheelchair-bound character is a phony, pushes him out of said chair just before a phone call proves him wrong. Later, Frasier talks to his father about it.

Frasier: Now there was a lesson learned. 

Martin: Yeah, don’t throw a guy out of a wheelchair. Who knew? 

And so I laughed. I’m sure the nurse was a little confused. What kind of person laughs when told that her elderly father has collapsed to the nursing home floor? 

Well, me, I guess. I laughed just as if she’d called me up to tell me a really good joke.  

“He’s not hurt at all,” said the nurse, possibly panicking herself. Perhaps she thought now it was I who had fallen. Into hysteria. “Him and his cleaning though, huh?” 

I laughed more. God, someone stop me.  

We eventually hung up, and of course I stopped laughing right away now that I didn’t have a horrified, misunderstanding audience. I wished very much that I could tell my mother about this. I knew she’d think it was funny. We might have laughed about the time Daddy fell down the stairs trying to save my sister and me from a burned out light bulb, or the time he fell through a warehouse roof after being told very specifically to not walk there. We’d have laughed about these things because we didn’t know what else to do. Some things are too sad to cry about.

While I was at it, I wished my dad weren’t in a nursing home wheelchair at all. I wished I could tell him and my mother both about this crazy dream I had, in which she was dead and he was too feeble to pick up a potato chip crumb.

I wished for a librarian to whom I could say, “But it’s not fair!” 

I wondered what the librarian would say back to me. Maybe, “If you don’t have the 75 cents today, you can just pay the fine next time.” That is, if I was able to hear her over the loudmouthed jackasses at the table behind me.

So. I could pay the fine and move on, or I could stand there all day whining. My choice.  

Fair enough. 

By All Means, Yes – Please Kill My Parent

Around a week before my mother died, my dad stopped eating. I mean, not totally, but enough that he lost 21 pounds in an alarmingly brief period of time. He’d been getting a little plump, on the nursing home food. Now he looked frail and old. “It’s just part of the disease,” they tell me. “They lose interest in food. It’s sad, but there’s not a lot you can do about it.”

So, hospice was called in; there were meetings to be had and papers to sign. I am the caretaker, now. The only one.

Here is how you feel when you are filling out the advanced directive paperwork for your parent or other loved one:

Artificial respiration? Nope! Kill him!

IV fluids? No, thank you. Just kill him.

Feeding tube? Feeding tube, schmeeding tube! Didn’t I already tell you to just kill him?

Well, to clarify: this is how I felt. It’s not necessarily how you or anyone else felt, or might feel one day in the future. Still, I can’t help but believe that I’m not the only one who has experienced this extreme reaction to a little paperwork.

Antibiotics? Why? Don’t bother, JUST KILL HIM!

In my dad’s case, Alzheimer’s Disease has rendered him incapable of making these decisions for himself. If he could, I know exactly what he’d say. “Keep me alive, you assholes! What, you just want to let me die? Give me feeding tubes and drinking tubes and whatever else they got. Give me all the fucking tubes. What are you, stupid? I’m staying alive.”

So how, you might wonder, could I check ‘No’ to all those questions, knowing what I know about my father? Knowing that if he is magically cured of Alzheimer’s and one days sees these papers I’ve signed, he will murder me in cold blood?

Hello, parents! Meet your daughter!

I try to tell myself that he has no quality of life, anymore, but that’s not even entirely true. He still enjoys music, to the point where he gets teary-eyed listening to certain songs. He still likes sports, though he no longer knows much about them. He likes visitors and just last week he told me he has a girlfriend. It was a joke (I think?) but, if a guy can make a joke, isn’t that a little bit of quality?

The medical community, and certainly the economy, seems to stand behind life at all costs. After all, you pay for a funeral and it’s over. You pay to keep a human alive, and it can go on indefinitely. Also, as a culture, we’re not real accepting of the inevitability of death. Which is good. We shouldn’t be. Until it actually becomes inevitable.

I signed these very same papers for my mother, because by the time the questions arose, she was too sick to consider them. She was so sick that nothing was clear to her anymore. She might still be alive, had I agreed to any of the methods of keeping her that way.

I hated checking those boxes. But I think I’d hate the alternative even more.

Good God, this is getting morbid and sad. Well, I guess killing one’s parents will do that to a person.

Also, if there is an afterlife? I probably won’t see you for a while because let me tell you, I am SO grounded.