There was no dignity in my father’s death.
Edward Leroy McElroy died a year ago today. He had been admitted to a hospital in Anniston, Ala., about a month before that. He was only 87 years old and he had been in excellent physical health six months before this. But when I reviewed his journal entries from the 18 months before his death, he talked often of wanting to die — and of the possibility of killing himself.
I had several conversations with a hospital social worker while he was waiting to die. She told me there was nothing specific wrong with him. He had some minor infirmities that are typical of older age, but if he hadn’t spent the previous months starving himself, he would have been fine. The social worker told me that he was too weak and frail by the time he was hospitalized. Doctors couldn’t make him strong enough to survive.
He had given up long before this. He wanted to die. He got his wish about 4:30 a.m. on April 17, 2018. A nurse named Linda Anderson was the only human being with him when his life slipped away.
The last time I saw him was the day he was admitted to the hospital. The man from whom he rented a home called me to say that an ambulance was taking my father to an emergency room. The EMTs thought he was dying as they left.
I had never talked with the couple from whom my father rented. In the emergency room waiting room that afternoon, I learned the specifics of all the lies he had told them. They learned how much of what he had said was completely fabricated. (For instance, he had told them he had been wealthy, but he lost all of his money in the Bernie Madoff scandal and that he hoped to get some of his money back one day.) They were very good to him — and I appreciate the fact that they continued to treat him well after they learned the truth.
It was a shock to see him that afternoon. He was a frail shell of the man he had been. I thought about taking a picture of him that afternoon, but I didn’t — because it wouldn’t have been the way he wanted to be remembered. In a strange way, it wouldn’t have been fair to him.
On the day that he died, I woke up around 6 a.m. to find a voicemail from the hospital asking me to call a nurse. After making that phone call, I sent an email to my two sisters:
“I just spoke with a nurse at the hospital where ELM has been for the last month or so,” I wrote. “He died this morning about 4:30. The nurse told me that he was comfortable and didn’t seem to be in pain when he died. She said that his lungs ultimately failed, but she didn’t have anything more specific than that. I asked whether he had ever regained full lucidity since he had been there and she said she didn’t think he had. That’s really about all she could tell me. I thought you should know.”
Although I had cut off contact with him years before — when he repeatedly refused to go to counseling with me about our issues — I didn’t wish anything bad for my father. I just wanted him to leave me alone.
For complicated psychological reasons that go back to my childhood, I have a serious need to have people understand my reasons for the things that I do. I need people to know I’ve given them every opportunity — and that I’ve treated them fairly. This is extremely important to me.
One of my few regrets about my father is that he never could understand why so many people had given up on him. He couldn’t conceive of the possibility that he was the one who created the personal messes that he left behind. Until I started studying about narcissistic personality disorder, I was completely confused about why he couldn’t understand why so many people were hurt and angry with him — and why so many people close to him had angrily cut him out of their lives.
I am envious of people who can remember a dead parent with love and respect. I’m envious of people who were able to give such a loved one the respectful and dignified goodbye that all of us would like.
My father was desperate for people to love him. He was hungry for connection that he never found. I can feel empathy for that part of him, because I have the same need. The difference between us is that I don’t believe anybody owes me love or attention. And because I’ve worked so hard on my own emotional growth, I believe I understand what love is in a way that he never did.
It was actually my father who angrily cut off contact with me 10 years ago. (I think I’ve told that story before.) He thought I would come beg him not to be angry and not to cut me off. Instead, I simply didn’t respond. Then when he started trying to restore communication — ignoring all the issues, of course — I ended up writing him a long email detailing the things that needed to be addressed. I told him that if he wanted a relationship with me, we had to get counseling and deal with both the past and the present.
He repeatedly refused.
My insistence that he deal with me as an equal adult and that he deal with issues that had been between us since my childhood were what he called my “hard-hearted, unbending stance.” He was eager for me to simply ignore the horrible things he had done in the past and the horrible things he continued to do until I quit talking to him.
In the 10 years or so after I quit talking with him, I got all sorts of emails from him. There was a pattern. For awhile, he would send angry emails that were vaguely threatening. Then he would go through a period when he would send pathetic, manipulative messages. One consistent thing, though, is that he would never give any indication that he understood why I wasn’t talking to him (or why my sisters had cut him off). He pretended not to know. He pretended that I’d never told him.
One of the core messages of the things he sent me over and over was how much I was going to regret my choices after he was dead. Here’s a typical example from four years ago:
“I’ve no doubt but that in time you will come to bitterly regret with anguished tears the hard-hearted, unbending stance you have taken — but you’ll be unable to make amends.”
(When I read over much of what he wrote, I’m reminded that he wrote well, although he never did it professionally.)
If I had not repeatedly given him opportunities to deal with the issues, I might have felt that way. If I had just walked away from him without explanation, I might have wondered if things could have been different.
But I gave him repeated explanations of the issues. I offered to go to therapy with him. The only direct answer he ever gave to my offers about therapy was to say, “…my advanced age and the perils that come with it make it unlikely that I would live long enough to profit from [counseling].”
That was 10 years ago. He lived plenty long enough. He simply didn’t want to deal with things which scared him.
I regret that something happened in his past to turn him into a malignant narcissist who destroyed relationships with the people who would like to have loved him.
I regret whatever made him treat his children in such destructive ways when we were young.
I regret the behavior which made two women angrily divorce him and caused someone who loved him in his old age to be forced to cut him off.
I regret that he couldn’t learn to quit treating his children as though we were his personal servants who must perform — even in our adult years — like trained seals.
I regret that he was alone and lonely as he faced death.
I regret a lot of things, but all the things which I regret were things over which I had no control.
Contrary to his repeated manipulative predictions, though, I regret nothing about finally standing up for myself and insisting that I be treated with respect and decency.
I wish I could have respected him and loved him. I wish I could have seen to it that his death came with dignity. But the things which led to that lonely death in a hospital room with a stranger were all of his own choosing.
I regret much about the things he chose for himself, but I have absolutely no regrets about finally walking away from his repeated abuse. I just wish he could have understood the truth about himself.
I still forget sometimes that he’s dead.
There are times when I see someone in public and I fear that he’s found me. That used to be one of my fears while he was alive. I’ve seen older men in the last year who looked vaguely like him, enough to make me momentarily forget he’s dead and make me feel panic.
There are times when I hear someone at my front door and think he’s come back to “ambush” me. Multiple times, he came to my front door in the last few years and knocked (long after I asked him not to).
On those occasions when I fear he’s found me, I momentarily feel shame, as though I’m in trouble with him again — just like a little boy would feel.
That’s his lasting legacy to me. No matter how far I go and how much I grow, I think I will always feel a bit of the fear he instilled in me as a child.
I didn’t wish him ill while he was still alive. I didn’t want him to die alone. I didn’t want any of the things which he created for himself.
But now that he’s gone, I hope I’ll slowly be able to finally feel at peace with myself — and finally know that his “ghost” can’t reach into the present day and make me feel the awful shame and humiliation which I will always associate with him.