Saturday, June 11, 2016

On Being the Next of Kin and Saying Goodbye

Last June, I reckoned with two aspects of family I wasn’t prepared for: decisions about end-of-life treatment, and death.

In Pennsylvania, I was recovering from a challenging birth two months prior and caring for my new daughter, when in Georgia my birth father, Rodney, suddenly found it increasingly difficult to breathe. He’d been a heavy smoker for years, and here came a flare-up of emphysema, a condition he’d had trouble with for some time. I was his only daughter (I almost wrote “biological” before “daughter”, as I'm so accustomed to using qualifiers to explain my family relations). Because of this, even though I’d only known him for five and a half years, the doctor in Atlanta called me to tell me they had put him on a breathing machine, explained what that meant, assured me he wasn’t in pain. This was life support. This was likely the end, as his lungs were in such a state that he would not recover. She wanted to let me know that we’d need to discuss decisions about when to remove him from the machines.

I felt a strange cocktail of emotions: shock, grief, and—unexpectedly—honor. His siblings, whom he’d always been close to and who lived nearby, were really the ones to ask—I didn’t feel qualified for such responsibility. I hadn’t known him that long. But was that selfish of me—to want to be connected with a relative but not be willing to bear responsibility that comes with it? I told his sister I didn’t know what he would want in this situation; we’d never talked about end-of-life wishes. She said they were not expecting me to make the call, but they wanted me to be part of the discussion. She knew that he’d always felt sorry for people who were kept alive by machine, so she was confident he wouldn’t want to be in that state for long.

I hung up the phone and cried. He had a very difficult life (part of the smoking, I believe, was self-medicating to help ease other pains), and I think I was grieving for that, too. I’m grateful for those 5+ years. It seems my birth father was making up for lost time, for he called me every single day. Sometimes multiple times a day-- sometimes I would get annoyed when his name popped up on my phone after I'd talked to him only hours before. What a gift to express annoyance with someone! Because 
to express a temporary, authentic emotion like that, you must know them, know them well, be confident in their love for you. It’s beyond niceties, which I never knew whether I’d gain with birth family. He was so excited to know me, to discover he’d fathered a child. Said it every day. He welcomed me unabashedly, as did his family. There are no words to express how grateful I am for that. How I will always treasure knowing him and the embrace of his—my—clan. 

Have you ever known someone who is sick and has been for a long time and you seem to believe the person can keep hanging on like that indefinitely? I think that’s why it felt so sudden—I must have been telling myself that because he’d obviously lived that way for years he would of course continue to do so. I assumed he’d meet his first grandchild—we were planning a trip to visit in November. Instead, at eight weeks old, my daughter peered into the casket at a stilled version of a man whose blood courses through her veins. I vowed to always remember him, keep connected with the family, so she could know him that way.

An aunt turned to me before the service began and said of his skin, “He’s darker than usual.” It was true. I’d noticed too but hadn’t said anything, figured it had to do with either the Georgia sun or embalming. Lingering on the question of skin tone out loud reminded me of how Black people talk about skin color freely, while White people often feel like they must tiptoe around even innocuous comments like that, so entrenched is our racial baggage in this country. It was the type of thing Rodney would have talked at high volume about without worry—he often mentioned his own shade and how light I’d turned out.

It is sad that the last time I saw my birth father was at his death, on this day one year ago, but it won’t be my final image of him. At the funeral I met more extended family members and learned more about him. One cousin recounted how he loved to dance way back in the day. Hit the clubs in late 1970s and 80s Chicago. Tall and lean, he’d swing ladies around on the dance floor, high kick over them, and I couldn’t help but picture Malcolm X in his zoot suit (I’d been reading X’s autobiography). It’s an image of a man before I knew him, before smoking got the best of him. An image that makes me smile, hopefully one as beautiful as this.