A friend’s father recently suffered a stroke and spent a mostly unconscious week in the hospital. On the third day, he had a brief spell of lucidity. My friend was visiting. The father – who’d reverted to his native language – said, “Keep me alive, son.”
Then rapidly deteriorated. He was intubated. The functions of his inoperative organs were replaced by pumping, thumping, wheezing machines.
But it was much more difficult for my friend to finally tell the doctors, “You’re right, it’s time,” than if he hadn’t had that final conversation. He knew his father wasn’t coming back. But keep me alive, son sure changes the way it feels.
Twice in the past year or so, my spouse has had to decide when it was time to ease off on her parents’ care. Her mother could speak (incoherently) when first taken to the hospital, but then the swelling set in. Her father, after a stroke, was speechless in the hospital, but during his moments of lucidity was able to wink at our daughter. He played peek-a-boo by rotating his head.
That night, the bleeding started again. With aggressive treatment, he could’ve been kept sufficiently alive for a vegetative, ventilated existence in the hospital. It was up to K to decide. “Make it easy for him.”
Most doctors forgo aggressive treatment. Those who’ve seen the fallout know it isn’t worthwhile.
Instead, my father-in-law’s life ended on a high note. The week before, he’d had a romantic fling with a 22-year-old. In the hospital, he played games with his granddaughter one last time. I told him we’d take good care of his rabbit and his dog. And the stroke itself occurred during a dinner party with his neighbors – thankfully they emptied out his weed grinder before he was loaded into the ambulance. (Although, why did they return the empty – but still redolent – grinder to his pocket? Do such accouterments hold sentimental value to potheads? As far as I could tell, this was a cheap wooden one, no more than a decade old.)
He didn’t ask that we keep him alive. And yet, in many ways, I am.
Mike Milks was a firm believer in community, and he spent his time caring for people less fortunate than himself… this despite the fact that he was often broke, homeless, and hungry. Each month when his SNAP benefits came through, he’d ride the bus to the discount grocery store, buy a bunch of whole wheat flour, and bake loaves of sourdough bread for his neighbors. $200 a month isn’t much, and yet his benefits helped a lot of people eat.
Before K and I moved him to Bloomington and started paying for him to have an apartment, he was squatting in his deceased former roommate’s house. No electricity, no water, no heat, in a mostly-abandoned neighborhood where thieves had stripped most homes of their copper pipes. Folks broke into his house twice; he was pistol-whipped in the face.
Before he fed himself, he fed the dog. And, when he could, left out scraps for the stray cats.
In Bloomington, he cared for addicts – his friends here struggled with opiates and amphetamines. He’d talk to them, and, when they blew their own meager salaries on drugs – or lost their jobs for arriving blinkered at work again – he’d feed them.
He cycled through many bedraggled roommates in his time here. One stiffed us for a thousand dollars, having never paid rent for seven months (yes, rent in Bloomington is very cheap. But that left K & me to scrape together the money on the salaries of a public school teacher and a full-time writer). Another has since been murdered in a bungled drug deal. The alcoholic librarian fancied himself the best of the lot, slurring to me one day, “Yer father sure knows a lotta low-level criminals.”
And yet even he, the alcoholic librarian, vanished… at which point cops came by to ask some questions because the dude’s car had been found abandoned in a field in the run-down nowhere between a town known for meth and a town known for pills. It was two weeks before the librarian turned up again, and every time Mike asked where he’d been the dude pretended not to hear the question.
Mike Milks gave what he had to those people. Nobody else cared for them.
And then, after he died, I began teaching in the local jail.
Against all odds – because I should admit that Mike infuriated me sometimes – I am carrying on his work. When Mike gave a banquet – with those scraps he cobbled together from SNAP benefits – he would invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind … and addicts, lepers of the modern world. He did so unthinkingly. All he had was love, and he gave where it was needed.
I am less kind than he was. But I am learning.
So, thank you, Mike. I am grateful to be keeping a small part of your work alive.