Nov 08, 2010 News
The man who taught me how to live has died
By Christopher John Farley
Most of my experience with the health care system, before my father’s health began to decline a few years ago, was through the movies, television, newspapers, magazines and the web.
On shows like “House,” ailments are exotic and are diagnosed and solved in 60 minutes, with a couple commercial interruptions. On TV talk shows, talking heads scrap over health care policy and try to score political points. What’s typically missing is the human element—how health care decisions actually affect flesh-and-blood people.
Sitting in a dimly-lit room in the ICU of Rochester General Hospital, in Rochester, NY, with my ailing 88-year-old father, I soon came to realize that I wasn’t in a scripted episode that was going to end happily. And politics and rhetoric were far from my mind.
My dad, Dr. Rawle Farley, had been a professor of economics at the State University of New York, College at Brockport since 1966. He was the founder and first chairperson of the Department of Economics at SUNY Brockport, and was named Professor Emeritus in 1995.
He’s the author of a number of seminal works that helped shape the study of the economics of the developing world, including “The Economics of Latin America: Development Problems in Perspective” (Harper & Row, 1972).
He was born Rawle Egbert Griffith Farley in South America in Courtland Village, Berbice, Guyana. He left Guyana when he was young to attend school in England. To pay for his schooling and fund his trip abroad, he sold the trophies he had won as a champion hurdler.
He eventually earned a Ph.D. from the University of London, and attended Oxford University. While a student in England, during one period he couldn’t find a landlord willing to rent a room to a Caribbean scholar. He ended up sleeping in a hallway between the rooms of two white friends.
As he lay on the hospital bed, I felt a duty to do everything possible to preserve his beautiful mind. He was breathing only with the assistance of a pressurized mask, and hadn’t talked much in days. But I held out the hope that the studious young man and avid chess player who had fought his way into the best schools in England was still inside there somewhere.
Early that afternoon, I sent my mother home from the hospital for some much needed rest. That evening, the doctor on call stopped by to discuss my dad’s case. He said that my father had had multi-organ failure, and that there was little they could do beyond the drastic measures that my dad, before his illness, had said he didn’t want. He didn’t want to be hooked up to machines.
He didn’t want to be resuscitated. So just about the only options left were keeping him comfortable, continuing with the oxygen, antibiotics, and various non-intrusive measures, and hoping for a miracle.
We were moved out of the ICU into a private room. I called my kids, aged five and eight, so they could say good night to their grandfather. For the first time that evening, dad tried to speak, and his eyes opened wide. No words came out, but he spoke volumes.
In the new room, I held his hand and he stared past me into space. His breathing became shallow. I called the nurse, and she told me he didn’t need the oxygen mask anymore and then exited the room to leave us alone.
I kissed my father on the forehead, told him I loved him and that he was a great dad, and then I couldn’t hear his breathing anymore. I put my ear to his chest—right on his bypass scar–and I couldn’t hear his heart beating. I put my hand on his head, where his hairline had receded, and it felt just as warm and moist as the top of my eight-year-old son’s head did when he was a newborn.
But my son was just starting life and my dad was leaving it.
I called the nurse, and she got the doctor. They registered the time of death as 12:05 a.m. My dad and mom raised four sons. All of us went to public school, and all of us went to Harvard or Harvard Law School, or both. All of my brothers, thanks in large part to their guidance, have gone on to interesting jobs of one kind or another.
But this last night (Friday night) was a final lesson. Part of reaching maturity is accepting, without fear, that life ends. Staring into that mysterious abyss makes other challenges seem small. I felt privileged that I had gotten to go to the edge with him. Dad helped teach me how to live, and how to die too.
After the doctor left, I was alone in the room with him. I put my hand on his head, but it was already turning cool, like a tile floor.
As I left the hospital that night, a melancholy rain was falling, and the streets were wet. I had a long drive back to Brockport to tell my mother that my father had passed. I had to do it face to face.
In the same way that there are some health care experiences that can’t be communicated via TV shows and punditry, there are some things that just can’t be said over the phone.
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