The novel Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese is about a boy, Franklin Starlight, whose ne’er do well father shows up in his life not to help him as a mentor, but to demand help with his death process.
Eldon Starlight has not earned the right to request anything of this abandoned teenager, yet he does. End of life issues also may bring many of us face to face with relatives who make unearned demands. The grueling passage of death may cause difficult moments in even the best relationships.
Some years ago, my oldest sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had weeks to live. She was thirteen years older and a second mother. She is the one who read books to me, put me to bed, and taught me to write my name—all while making me feel loved. She had patience with my teenage sulks and listened to my early love woes. I owed her big time.
She became less coherent, as the tumor grew, and I conversed her the best I could. One of our last nights, we watched the Academy Awards together, and she could only gesture her approvals and disappointments. This is a treasured moment.
Perhaps listeners of this program have the same mix of emotions that I experienced—the ups and downs and in-betweens, and always the guilt. Perhaps, like me, you have had conflicted feelings about your less pleasant dying friends and relatives.
Franklin, in the novel, observes his father’s deteriorating health—the fevers, yellow-tint of his skin as liver failure advances, the shakes, the vomit. He does not forgive him for years of neglect, but he stays with him through the death process. The boy gains, in a few days, a maturity that could not happen without this crisis. The rewards, however, do not make the “medicine walk” toward the next world easy for anybody in the story. Franklin’s path to manhood is beset with all the challenges, but he is better for it.
My own father was a difficult man. In public, he used his strong opinions to lead the Lyon County Democrats against the Republican majority. He wrote letters to the editor that challenged William L. White of the Emporia Gazette—those two old grouches became fast friends. At home, he remained a bear.
After his stroke, though, I grieved at his loss of dignity as he could no longer speak or walk. I cherish the times he “said” grace before meals. He could hum the rhythm of “Give us this day our daily bread.” He ended the performance with a flourished benediction with his good hand. This image remains, years after his death.
Perhaps you have memories of the dying times of your relatives, perhaps private moments or moments shared with others. You may have learned stories that would never have come to light otherwise. Perhaps you would like to share these in the HPPR comment section. Together, we might understand just a tad bit more of this great mystery.