Published- New York Times Op-Ed
OCTOBER 28, 2015
My Father’s Jewelry
My father never wore a lot of jewelry. As he got older, a necklace with the Hebrew word “chai,” or “life,” but rarely rings and certainly not bracelets.
As a master cabinet maker for over 70 years, he had a very practical answer for this, saying that jewelry could get caught on the wood or in machinery and cause havoc. And my father was not prone to havoc. That was his answer, but looking back I like to think that he never wore jewelry because his hands alone, unadorned, were very beautiful.
Incredibly strong, controlled, capable of the most subtle of movements yet able to bring a man to his knees with a handshake. I am sure my dad never in his wildest dreams thought of his hands that way, but that is how I will always remember them. His hands were his tools, as was his entire body. He took care of his body long before it was fashionable. Though I never saw him exercise, his work kept him fit. Bending, lifting, carrying, all in a day’s work. He took care to get enough sleep, never overate or drank too much, a measured man, practical and economical almost to a fault, never a wasted action or gesture. Now at the end of his life, hands trembling, difficult to feed himself, a man whom I have always known to have a purpose for his day is not sure why he is still here. His days now are the antithesis of his previous life. In a nursing home, where his actions have no obvious purpose, no acts of creation, he is bored.
Would it have been different if, knowing the future, he and I had spoken about living wills and advance directives? If he was no longer himself, would he have wanted to stop eating and drinking? Would he in an earlier, more aware state tell us that if his quality of life was unacceptable we should withhold sustenance? Who would make that decision? Or would he from that same aware state choose to participate in life as long as he has without imposing his own will to end it? We spoke in advance about refusing heroic treatments: intubation, cardiac resuscitation, but not about the passive ways of hastening his death; refusing nourishment. I will never know his answer but I think about it every time I hold his hands and breathe his air.
Too late now. At 95, removed from his shop and his tools, he is wearing not one but three bracelets. A veritable bangle bracelet show. The first has his name and the room number of the facility that he is in. It is the wrong room number but it’s O.K.; they know him.
The next bracelet is a white band with a three-quarter-inch by three-quarter-inch chip that could be mistaken for a Starburst candy. This chip will alert the authorities if my dad attempts to escape. Spoiler alert, he is not going anywhere. The last one looks like those old ID bracelets we used to wear except this one states “Do not resuscitate.” It is strange to see that this man, whose life never revolved around jewelry, is now defined by it. One bracelet goes off if he tries to leave and the other one states clearly: Let him leave. I know they are two very different paths: one out the front door, the other through the ethers.
He is ready to leave. I asked him, “Are you afraid?” “Afraid,” he said, in a much clearer voice than usual. “No,” he stated. He is ready. Now I am left to wonder, when it is his time to leave, and no one pulls him back, will his other bracelet beep?
Robert J. Abramson is a doctor who practices acupuncture and integrative medicine.