When the cancer gets the body – my dad is waiting to die

My dad was hospitalized because of his cancer. The day I came back from South Africa I went straight to the hospital to visit him. It was a sunny day with 20°C degrees, and the birds were singing. Spring was in the air. But I was so nervous.

I entered the hospital, took the elevator to the 4th floor and mechanically walked in the long hallway looking for the room of my dad. Once I faced the closed door I hesitated for a moment. How was he going to look like? What was he going to say? How was he feeling? Would he only be able to talk nonsense?

I took a deep breath and went in. The room was bright and it was hot inside. He was laying in the bed covered with blankets. My dad looked like a child. They did cut his long hair and his long beard. During the last 10 weeks I had not seen him, he did lose a lot of weight: 20kg are a lot even for people that have quite some fat reserves. Now I could see the bones of his cheeks.

When he saw me, his eyes did brighten up for a moment. But as he started talking it was all about complaining: the food at the hospital was tasteless, the nurses just cared about his blood pressure but not about him as a person, and he could not hear well. He actually did hear me, as if I would be talking to him on an old phone through which every word gets distorted by an echo.

While listening to him I was comforted to notice that what he said had some sense – his mind still worked. But I also realized that through the malfunctioning hearing he had an additional barrier to connect to the external world. That day, as well as the following ones, I just sat by him in the hospital room and listen to him.

He was not eating and not drinking since weeks. He was starving himself. Starving to death? The taste of food did already abandon him several months before he did end up in the hospital, but did now also the motivation to be alive abandon him?

“Why should I be alive to just be in a hospital bed? I just lay here day after day since weeks. Why should I lay here for longer? My CHI is very low.” He told me. His CHI, his vital energy, was abandoning him. I realized that he was waiting to die.

As well I understood that indeed, he was starving himself to death. And every intervention from the doctors and nurses was pulling him into the opposite direction. He was pulled towards life from the aid of the hospital and towards death from his inside. He did struggle. He was seeing everything through a black layer. Doctors technically called this state of mind “depression”, but how should anyone feel when your body gives up and you lack any perspective for an improvement in the future?

A hospital is made to heal patients. They come in, “get fixed”, go out, and keep running around. A hospital is not made to accompany people to the moment they die. When people die in a hospital it’s an unwanted outcome, it’s a failure of the system. This is a taboo topic people are scared to talk about.

While sitting on a chair in that hot hospital room with a beautiful view of the Swiss mountains, I watched my dad laying under a thick blanket and still feeling cold. I was asking myself: Should I motivate him to be alive? Should I motivate him to drink and eat? Should I motivate him to make “his own will” weaker? Did I really think that he could recover and get back home or would this just make his agony longer?

Even if, rationally speaking, it did not make sense at all I just could motivate him to drink a glass of water and take a spoon of soup. There was no other option for me, even if I don’t know why.

During these weeks I kept coming back and sit by him. I listened to him and he kept talking. He had a lot to say. I realized that I was his connection to the external world. I was the one bringing him out of his own brain, I was the one to whom he could tell his dreams and stories. But I was also his accomplice that could help him making his dreams happen.

I felt as if we were sitting at an imaginary train station. He had a one-way ticket to an unknown destination. We knew that he would not come back, so saying goodbye felt very important.

The train was on the platform, I thought that it was ready to leave in a moment. My dad was already inside the train and the window was open. We were talking about the journey, about the good time we had together. We were waiting, but we did not know when the train would leave.

Then I started to become hungry and tired while waiting at the train station. How long should I wait? After some time I went away, got some food and some sleep. I came again to the train station the next day. The train had not left. My dad went to the train door. We started discussing, whether he should come back on the platform and sit on the bench with me. How far could he walk? When would the train leave? Why did it not leave? We did not know, there was no time marked on the time-schedule.

When I walked in that hospital room for the first time my breath got stuck and my stomach tied up into a big knot. I was calm. But I felt as if a lot of strong emotions did permeate me within seconds. That day I thought that my dad will die within the next two weeks.

He did not. Instead, these days have been a succession of ups and downs. One day he could not stand up from his bed, as he got dizzy. Another day he did drink a sip of water. A day he did stand up and with the wheelchair, we went to the park of the hospital to feel the sun and watch the trees. I never knew what to expect, when I went to visit him. But it was as if through our conversations we did slightly open a window that let some fresh air into his life.

Within two weeks he changed his mindset, from actively wanting to die and passively waiting for death, to actively regaining energy despite the limitations of his sick body. He started again to have some small dreams and plans. He came out of the hospital and moved into a palliative care hospice as a room became free. I hoped, that it would be a better place to die.