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Commentary: Uncle Wayne versus The Heartbeat Counters

By Tom Dodge, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX –

When Uncle Wayne visited my mother in the nursing home, he said, "If I ever get in that shape, if I can do it, I'll find a way to the top of the building and do a swanny off the roof." He said this because he knew the difference between living and the existence in which she was trapped. He was her only surviving sibling and she didn't recognize him. She hadn't known who I was for several years, or even herself, probably.

She stopped eating last summer and was spoon-fed for a while until she could no longer swallow food and refused to try.

Before Alzheimer's had finished her off, we used to go to the country cemetery at Caddo in Johnson County where most of our people are buried. We talked about the family members who died before I was born, of her life during the Depression and war years, of my doings as a kid, the things I said. I loved it, and she enjoyed it, too, at least while it was happening. As soon as we left she had forgotten it. But while there she always looked at the graves of her all her kin and said the same thing: "I wish I was there with them."

When the social worker called, as I knew she would, she asked whether the family wanted a feeding tube or hospice care. "She wasn't afraid of death," I said, "and we all agree that she wouldn't want us to interfere with nature."

The hospice nurses stayed with her around the clock throughout the nine days of her leave-taking. They gave her whatever medication she needed in order for her to be comfortable. She slept most of the time. She had no pain or suffering. No tubes of any kind were in her stomach, nose, or mouth. When her breathing became irregular and shallow I knew she was nearing Caddo. I saw her take her last breath, as she had seen me take my first. It occurred to me that we had completed a circle.

Uncle Wayne had out-lived two happy marriages. He was lonely and bored with life. We talked on the phone every week, though he never remembered our conversations or even that I had called. Like my mother in the early stages of forgetfulness, he had lost his immediate memory. But he was still able to re-tell the stories of his youth in Johnson County, of his Navy years in World War II, of seeing Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio play baseball and Sugar Ray Robinson box Jake LaMotta. But I knew that would all be forgotten soon and the heartbeat counters would come with their machines.

Last month, in an assisted-living facility in San Francisco, he got up and dressed for breakfast but had a heart attack and died in his room.

Mechanical support has its place. A friend of mine used a feeding tube temporarily when radiation treatments made his mouth too sore to eat. Ventilators are used all the time in post-surgical recovery. They provide time needed for healing so the patient can get back to normal. The only technology that could have possibly helped my mother and uncle is stem cell treatment but, unfortunately, those who feel they won't need it are opposed to it, and insist that it be unavailable to others.

Uncle Wayne didn't mind dying, just minded living against his will. When asked how he was doing, his stock answer was, "Still cheatin' the undertaker."

Well, you can't cheat the undertaker forever but if you're lucky you can avoid the tubes and machines and posturing politicians - without resorting to a swan dive off the roof.


Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian. If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.