Killing My Father

Some days are just more than I can handle. Well, not the whole day. I took dance classes today, and that was as wonderful as always. Everything was even fine when I got back to the house. My father was up, seemed content, so I told him I’d be gone all day next Thursday and Friday, and into the evening on Friday. He was okay with that, but when I asked if he would be okay if I went to the Sierra group walk for a while tonight, he got upset with me for leaving him alone. Then I noticed he was gasping for breath.

I went to check his oxygen concentrator machine, and it didn’t seem to be working — the regulator ball was at zero. My father came and pushed me away from the machine (he still has a lot of strength for a 97-year-old man). He was all in a panic, pushing buttons, turning the machine off and on, twisting the regulator knob, and he refused to go sit down so I could check out the machine. Finally, I steered him away from the machine, told him he was panicking from loss of oxygen, and rather sternly told him to just lie still while I got the problem taken care of.

wind“I don’t want to die,” he kept screaming, and at one point, “you’re killing me.” (Not sure why he said that. Maybe because I wasn’t moving fast enough to suit him. The truth is, he is fine without oxygen for several hours. He simply panicked.)

Meantime, I called hospice, who called the oxygen people. When I told my father the oxygen people were going to call me back, he got mad and said I was supposed to call “hostage.” I explained I did call hospice, and they were the ones who called the oxygen supplier. I finally got him calmed down enough so I could go get the temporary tank from another room and set it up for him. Now we’re waiting for a replacement tank (or maybe just new tubing — I didn’t see any kinks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any).

Considering his panic, I asked if he was still willing to be left alone during those two days next week. I said I could ask my sister to come back, and he refused to let me ask her, just said to leave the emergency tank set up. It’s not possible to leave the tank set up — such a tank holds only four hours of oxygen, and if it was set up, it would be out of oxygen by the time he needed it. He said he was still able to remember fundamentals such as how to work a machine once it was explained to him, and I didn’t say anything. Under normal circumstances, it could be true, but when he is panicked, thinking he is going to die from lack of oxygen, I have my doubts.

But it’s still his choice . . . for now.

(An hour later: The machine is fine — it turned out the electric socket is dead. My father is fine too. It turned out I did not kill him.)

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, andDaughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Grateful to be Breathing Easily

Today I am especially grateful that I can breathe easily.

Late last night, my father’s oxygen concentrator machine broke down, so I spent most of the night dealing with him and people from the oxygen company. While we waited for a callback, my father became so short of breath, he started going into a panic, so I dragged out the portable emergency canister. He said he’d rather not use the canister, and it’s just as well. Although I’d been told all I have to do is turn it on, no one told me how to turn it on or how to adjust the flow so I didn’t poison my father with too much oxygen.

When the on-call guy from the oxygen company called me, he tried to explain how to set up the portable oxygen canister. I got the oxygen turned on, only to discover the tank was empty, so I had to take the regulator off the empty canister and put it on a full one. Sometimes the littlest things make life difficult, and so it was last night. The reguSlator had a ridiculous hard plastic washer to keep the oxygen from leaking, but when I tried to screw on the regulator, the washer kept falling off. If I tilted the canister to lay the regulator over the “snake teeth” as he called the prongs that went into the holes toward the top of the canister, I couldn’t keep the phone propped on my shoulder to hear his instructions.

Finally, the on-call guy said he’d just come out and replace the concentrator machine. Shortly after I hung up the phone, I was able to put the regulator on the canister, but I had no idea how to adjust the flow. Well, now I do. The on-call guy showed me. Also left me a regulator with a washer that snaps into place. By the time he left and my father was sleeping peacefully, it was a bright 7 am. I tried to sleep for a bit, but I couldn’t help thinking that despite the complications of the night, supplemental oxygen is mostly a simple matter. I remembered tales and pictures of iron lungs from my youth, and felt grateful such machines were no longer needed.

Um, wrong. Out of curiosity, I Googled “iron lung” and discovered there are still polio victims living in iron lungs, have been for the past sixty years. I remember when I was young, how terrified I was of those hideous looking machines and even now the thought that some people were sentenced to a lifetime in such a contraption would have given me nightmares if I had been able to fall asleep. Oddly, the people who need to use the tanks because there is still no other way to force their diaphragms to work seemed to have good attitudes. Even that is unimaginable to me. But I suppose the alternative is even worse.

Breathing seems such a simple thing, so simple we mostly do it without even thinking. We draw in air, filter it through our lungs, and exhale the waste. And yet, even that natural act is beyond some people.

I hope you will take a deep breath with me and be grateful you can still perform such a simple, live-affirming action.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.