Monday, March 09, 2009
I had an odd conversation with my father tonight. He asked me to talk to him about the difference between sin and evil, which I did very cautiously, emphasizing that I was only sharing my own opinions. Then he told me that evil doesn't matter anyway, because both the participants and the victims become numb to it. He proceeded to go off on a long existential riff about how life is meaningless, how there's no ultimate reality, and how the world is just an illusion. He allowed as how he loves me and my sister, but then said, "But how important are you, really? You only have the meaning I assign to you."
I gently pointed out that my sister and I are also important to other people, and asked Dad if he wanted to talk to a chaplain. He said, "I am talking to a chaplain." Before I left, I asked the nurse to ask the chaplain to stop by anyway: it may be easier for a stranger to make sense of all this than I can, and anyway, chaplains aren't supposed to minister to family members any more than surgeons are supposed to operate on their friends and relatives.
It turns out that there are articles about existential distress at end of life. There seems to be a fairly extensive literature about whether such patients should be sedated out of their unhappiness.
Dad's nurses are happy with how physically strong he is: evidently he transferred himself to a wheelchair today, and he lifted himself by his grab bar when they were changing his bed, although the effort left him gasping for breath. He may be transferred to a nursing home as soon as tomorrow. We're not sure where he's going -- the VA place or the community facility I requested -- but wherever he lands, I'm going to see about getting some spiritual counseling for him.
And yes, I know: this is what hospice is for. All the medical folks I've asked, though (at least those who know Dad personally) have frowned at me, as if I'm being undaughterly for raising the subject, and said, "Oh, no, it's not time yet!" Tonight I asked Dad if he thinks he's dying, and he doesn't think so, either.
Over dinner, I discussed Dad's distress with Gary, a card-carrying existentialist. We decided that the meaning of life is that motto so beloved of emergency personnel, environmentalists and Girl Scouts: "Leave the place better than you found it."
Works for me. I think that's a lot of what the world's spiritual teachings are about, when you get right down to it.