The conversation I had with Mr. & Mrs. Smith hit me like a sucker punch to the gut. When I talked to Dad and raised my concerns and implored him to think about getting to the hospital, he got very angry with me, and cussed about how the Smiths and everyone else should just mind their own business and leave him alone. He was adamant that he would get healing in Christian Science or just die. Either way, he wasn’t going to the hospital. I felt helpless. I was 3,000 miles away, and wasn’t in much of a financial position to afford to travel on short notice to Dad’s home. I felt trapped and helpless.
I told a co-worker about this, and he offered me his frequent flyer miles, which was enough to pay my entire fare from Boston to where Dad was living. I booked a flight for the following week (the soonest available), and made arrangements for shifts of church friends to be with Dad during most of the day, and for someone to spend the nights there until I got there. There wasn’t a moment now when Dad would be alone in the house.
I also had the Smiths take away the one set of car keys that they could find (that didn’t go down well with Dad), and assured Dad that I had directed his caregivers to check the odometer on the car, and if it indicated that he had driven, I was going to report it to the DMV and have them haul him in for a driver’s test (the law allows for this). His response was a series of f-bombs, but he ultimately conceded. I assured him that if he needed transportation anywhere that there were people ready to help him. He seemed reluctantly resigned to that part of his fate.
He also didn’t seem to think I needed to waste my time or effort to come out, that he really was ok, that everyone was exaggerating things. He assured me that he was getting better. I insisted that he at least be in daily contact with his practitioner, which he had not been lately. My ultimatum was that he had to be serious about Christian Science treatment, or go to the hospital. He couldn’t just languish in his own self-pity and physical decline in the house alone. Every phone call almost brought me to tears.
So often, I prayed that I would just wake up and find that it was all some horrible nightmare. Problem was, this nightmare was no dream. I was losing my father–the rock that I grabbed on to all of my life. He was Superman to a little blond kid who fearlessly scrambled along the rocks when we went hiking; he was the person to whom I could say anything, and know that he wouldn’t pass judgement on me. More than anyone in my life, he unconditionally loved me. I can’t describe how it felt to see him slipping away. I was more afraid than I had ever been in my entire life. I couldn’t visualize my life without this ‘rock’, even though we all know that most of us will outlive our parents. Some things you just don’t think about…until it happens.
Dad was in an amazingly deep state of denial that only someone who has been in Christian Science themselves would understand. On a certain level, so was I. I knew the situation was serious, but I was, and I realize now as I look back, had been for the whole summer, in my own very deep state of denial about how bad things truly were with him. This is what Christian Science does to people. It blinds you to true reality by asking you to deny the undeniable reality in front of your own eyes in favour of some sort of ‘spiritual’ reality–always just out of sight. This is what makes it so dangerous. This is how it kills people. Denial and ‘radical reliance’ on Christian Science–the ultimate lethal cocktail. My denial was about to be shattered.
After a day’s journey, when I finally got to Dad’s home late in the afternoon, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw, even though the church folks who were looking after Dad did not sugarcoat anything much for me. He was in bed. I was told that he rarely got out of bed. He could barely get up to go to the bathroom, and couldn’t stand up long enough to shower without assistance. He could sit up for perhaps 10 – 15 minutes and didn’t eat much. He also had a very deep sore on the side of one knee. When I cleaned it and re-bandaged it, I would estimate by appearances that my finger could go in almost to the first knuckle. The odour of decay was also unmistakeable. And, he was occasionally hallucinating. I had no doubt whatsoever that he had to go to the hospital. I also knew that legally it would be difficult to force him to go. I had to convince him to go of his own accord, and I did not expect that to be easy. To a person, all who looked in on him (and all were Christian Scientists) felt that he needed to be taken to the hospital. Dad always brushed those suggestions away, so they stopped asking him. He would often say, “just leave me alone, let me die here.” He said that to me too.
I knew the only way I was going to break through the mesmerism (to turn a favourite Christian Science term around), was to hit him hard with the facts, and not to be nice about it. I started by telling him that he needed a level of care that I and the others were unqualified to give, and asking him if I called an ambulance, would he let them take him to the hospital. As expected, the answer was ‘no’. Since it was late in the evening, I dropped the matter, we had dinner, and went to bed. I don’t recall that I slept at all that night, jumping out of bed to run to the other room at the slightest sound–usually Dad getting up to go to the bathroom. The night passed fairly uneventfully except for one incident where he awoke in a deep state of hallucination and panic. I was watching a man I always knew as intelligent, decisive, and sharp witted decaying both mentally and physically right before my own eyes. I can’t begin to describe the cascade of emotions I felt. I felt helpless, I could not deny what was before me, and I knew what had to be done. It just wasn’t going to be easy, not for me, and not for him.
In the morning, I ratcheted up my approach a few degrees. In a fairly one-sided conversation, I laid it out to him plainly and forcefully. I said that he needed extensive physical care, that his physical situation was much more serious than he was willing to see, he was hallucinating, and that I was not properly qualified to give the care that he needed. He again re-iterated his desire to just be left alone to die. I said that I could do that, if he remained in the house in his condition, that’s exactly what would happen. He would die. I said, “now, let’s say that happens. What do you think will happen next? Well, I’ll tell you. You’ll die. I or someone else will have to call the authorities to deal with the body.” I went on to inform him that probably one of the first questions that would be asked was why he didn’t get to a hospital sooner. I informed Dad that what he was doing was “self-abuse”, and that if I didn’t report it, because I knew about this, I and anyone else who knew about it could be asked some very serious questions, and possibly be held legally responsible. At this point I was bluffing–I don’t know for sure if we would have been legally responsible where Dad lived, but he had no way of knowing, and he knew I had some knowledge of elder care laws based on a previous job I had. I do know that in some jurisdictions there is mandated reporting of self abuse if you’re a caregiver who has knowledge of such. At the very least, I was sure I at least would be answering some pretty tough questions, and justifiably so.
Dad acquiesced and agreed to be taken to the hospital. I called the ambulance, and they came to get him. The Smiths came over to be with us. I had to choke back tears as they loaded him up on the gurney. He looked like a frightened little child. I wondered what I was doing to him. Even now, more than three years later as I write this, I still choke up when I think about that morning. I felt like I’d just punched him in the gut, but at the very same time, I felt like I was saving his life. I rode in the ambulance with him and stayed most of the rest of the day in the emergency room with him.
Several times, Dad would get a weird idea in his head that the hospital was somehow going to take all his money, “that’s what they do,” he’d say. I assured him that it wasn’t going to cost him anything, that he was back living in Canada, and things like that don’t happen here. We had health coverage, everyone does. He’d calm down, until the looped tape recorder in his head looped back again. He also thought I was in on the whole conspiracy. His mental state had quickly become much more alarming to me than the physical. I knew that the physical state could be fixed or at least stabilized, but mentally, I saw him slipping away. That scared the hell out of me. I never felt so completely alone. There were no platitudes from Christian Science practitioners, no trite statements from Science and Health, nothing was going to bring me comfort. One of the Smiths drove me home eventually so I could rest, while the other stayed with Dad.
When I went home, I informed the practitioner on Dad’s case (incidentally who was also mine and Dad’s Christian Science teacher) that I had taken Dad to the hospital. His reaction caught me completely off guard. With thinly veiled anger, he asked why I hadn’t bothered to get Dad to the Christian Science nursing facility (where Dad had taken Mom, and where she died). I responded by filling him in on exactly what the physical situation was, and that Dad likely wouldn’t have survived the five hour drive and nearly two hour ferry ride it would have taken to get there. I said, “he can’t even sit up for five minutes!” “I’d start out with Dad, and end up with a corpse; then what would I tell the authorities?” The practitioner, my teacher, and a trusted spiritual advisor to my family then proceeded to accuse me in a very forceful tone of betraying my father, and that he would not be able to offer Christian Science ‘treatment’ for Dad anymore. In my frayed emotional state, that was NOT what I needed to hear. I called a local church member who was working her way into the full-time practice of Christian Science for support, and she readily agreed to pray for Dad. It did not matter to her that he was in the hospital.
Eventually, Dad was transferred to the cardiac ward. It was determined that he was suffering from heart failure, and the doctors surmised that the onset had possibly been 5 – 7 years, which would have coincided roughly with when I first remembered Dad having noticeable physical difficulties. From what I understand, this condition is treatable and with medication, most people live fairly well. Dad’s condition, however, was very far gone, and while nobody was suggesting he wouldn’t survive, they didn’t paint a rosy picture either.
Shortly after Dad was admitted to the hospital, he suffered a massive stroke. A subsequent CAT scan showed evidence of two previous strokes. I recalled an odd instance more than 10 years earlier when Dad suffered an episode of hallucination and memory loss from which he seemed to recover (of course, we considered that a Christian Science “healing”). I told the doctors about his fall in the house a few weeks earlier, and we put it all together to determine that he had suffered a stroke at that time, and I logically assumed that the incident of 10 years ago was also a stroke.
Within a couple of weeks, physically Dad was somewhat stabilized. The sore on his knee began to heal, thanks to proper treatment, and he was comfortable. He was well cared for by the doctors and nurses. Shifts of church friends drifted in and out of his room, and between them and myself, he was rarely alone. I usually spent late afternoons and evenings with him, and fed him dinner (his stroke rendered him unable to feed himself). However, mentally, it was a different case. Dementia was setting in.
I remember it like it was yesterday–the first time I came in to visit and my Dad did not recognize me. He looked at me like a stranger and asked me who I was. It cut through me like a hot knife through soft butter. I held back tears and told him. Then he seemed to remember, and we visited.
That evening, I went to a native sweat lodge ceremony I had been regularly attending each week since I had arrived. A friend of mine from high school days had first brought me to this ceremony back in May of that year, just after Mom died. The sweat lodge was becoming a new ‘rock’ for me to grab on to during this time. In it, I was finding what I desperately needed: healing, comfort, and fellowship. These were my first steps on what is now my post-Christian Science spiritual path. As I drove to the ceremony that evening, I alternately cried, and screamed at the top of my lungs. I wanted Dad to either recover, or for his misery to end. Selfishly, I wanted my misery to end. The guilt I felt for that feeling still haunts me sometimes. The teachings and support I received there brought me the emotional healing I needed. Christian Science gave me nothing. It largely abandoned me, and my Dad. It refused to even acknowledge the pain we were feeling.
This post concludes with Part 3.