Sunday, June 29, 2014

"I should have taken the dog for a walk."

"I should have taken the dog for a walk." Those were my mother's words to me a week after my father's death in February 1979, when he was 57.

She'd awakened one morning and found my father, blue and gurgling, in the bed beside her. She called my sister, who lived nearby, and said, "Something is wrong with Daddy. Come right now." My 24-year-old sister arrived in her pajamas, ran down the hall to the bedroom, took one look at our father and called 9-1-1. The paramedics arrived and took him to the hospital, where he died nine weeks later.

"I should have taken the dog for a walk." I can still remember how I caught my breath. How selfish of her, I thought. I'd had a strained relationship with my mother for years, and this was one of those times I felt the strain again.

"I should have taken the dog for a walk." That phrase has remained with me for 35 years. Even after my mother died in 2008, I remembered.

Then, just this week, I had a conversation with my sister about the day she called 9-1-1 for my father. She said she and my mother didn't follow the ambulance to the hospital. An hour later a doctor called to talk to her about putting my father on a ventilator. His lungs had filled with fluid, but a ventilator could be used as a temporary aid. He recommended it be done. My mother argued with the doctor. "He was my buddy. I promised him I wouldn't let anyone perform heroic measures on him." The doctor was persuasive, though, and my mother gave her consent.

As it turned out, the ventilator remained in use for nine weeks. Attempts were made to wean my father from the machine, but his lifelong smoking habit had resulted in emphysema, and his lungs had given out. Late one evening he asked that the ventilator be turned off, and his request was honored. He died six hours later.

Until this week I hadn't known about the phone conversation between the doctor and my mother. I hadn't known -- or hadn't remembered -- about the promise my parents had made to each other not to allow heroic measures. I see now that "I should have taken the dog for a walk" was a statement made out of heartbreak and regret rather than out of selfishness.

I made assumptions about another person, and I didn't know the whole story. And I missed an opportunity, in my mother's later years, to talk to her about promises and regrets. It might have been good for us both.

I'm trying harder not to make assumptions.

11 comments:

Teresa Evangeline said...

Wow, Linda, that's a tough assumption to carry around for so long. It is a good reminder to not make assumptions. I've been practicing this, with some measure of success, these past few years, but I occasionally get caught in one again. Thank you for telling us this. It's a really important life lesson, and I'm grateful for the reminder. I'm also left with a reminder to always be clear in my own communication. Your mother also made an assumption you would understand her words (slightly veiled, imo), but did not clarify, which would have been ever so good for both of you, as well. I hope you're at peace about this.

lyndagrace said...

It’s difficult sometimes, when I have a preconceived opinion about someone for me not to make assumptions. It’s even harder when that person is someone who is close to me and with whom I have a rocky relationship. What I find is that communication becomes a one way conversation which occurs only in my head.
Thank you for reminding me that kind of behavior can only result in future regret.

Tom Sightings said...

What a story ... and what a lesson for the rest of us to have end-of-life directives.

DJan said...

I'm so glad that at last you finally understood what your mother meant by that statement. And your father was so very young to die of emphysema. Cigarettes have killed many people prematurely. Thanks for this reminder to realize that I might not know the whole story and can make false assumptions.

rosaria williams said...

Ohhhh....
Yes, we don't know the full story in many cases...

Terra said...

How sad and a story that reminds me to talk to people and clarify what they mean, or what they did or did not do.

Joanna Richey said...

Linda
this is one of the best of your blogs…so important not to make assumptions and how serendipitous that you found out the real meaning of your mother's statement even after all these years.
Joanna

Retired English Teacher said...

This is so insightful. I really enjoyed reading this. It takes a person willing to learn new insight and put aside assumptions to be able to understand what your mother really meant by that statement. It is so difficult not to make assumptions, but I honestly do try not to do so on most occasions. Mostly, I've learned not to do so because I've been embarrassed at how wrong I have been on occasions when I thought I had an inside track on understanding something only to learn that I didn't understand at all.

Linda Reeder said...

Oh, that is a heavy weight for you to carry around. Forgive yourself. And thank you for telling this story. The phrase " I should have taken the dog for a walk" might just have a special meaning for many of us now.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

Oh, Linda, that's so painful -- both at the time and when you learned the real context of her comment. It's so important to forgive yourself. We all do the best we can at the time and sometimes youth and the assumptions so easy to make before one is seasoned by loss and experience get in the way. What's important now is not only being less inclined to make assumptions but also to extend your compassion to yourself. People are so often not at their best when faced with the loss of a loved one.

Perpetua said...

You learned a hard lesson there and I'm grateful you shared it with us. It's sad that it took so long for you to be told the whole story and to come to understand your mother's thinking and meaning, but I'm glad it finally happened.