“Because iniquity will abound, charity will grow cold. But those who persevere to the end will be saved.” Matthew 24:12
My father, Lawrence William Hamtil, after almost a 20 year battle with Parkinson’s, passed away this week. While I am sure that he would rather go to his eternal reward quietly and unannounced (he was, after all, very humble, despite his many accomplishments in medicine), I believe that his many sufferings and anguishes, — which he bore with serenity, patience, and fortitude, — demand a recounting.
I am writing this also as a kind of ‘summing up’ of my experience as a primary caregiver to my father. I am not doing it for the world to know of any sacrifices I made over the years, or of any trials I may have endured. But the simple fact remains that when my father first took seriously ill in 2001, I was barely 19. I am now a grey-haired man of 34. It was a long and trying journey, but it was also one of the most significant roles I have played in life.
My father, who grew up poor in suburban St. Louis, MO, went on to become the first college graduate in his family. He proceeded on to medical school and eventually chose ophthalmology as his area of practice. He became one of the first dedicated pediatric ophthalmologists, and, in his later years, was one of the few remaining ophthalmologists who was not a further specialist of some kind.
My father considered himself a kind of artist first and doctor second; the eye was merely the canvas on which he worked. But he was an artist without vanity and ego. He did not seek to gain attention or riches with his skills. Rather, he was dedicated to perfecting his craft and enhancing the lives of his patients. It was not uncommon that around the Kansas City area, people who did not think they were strangers would announce themselves to him and proclaim that he had saved so-and-so’s vision. My father’s reaction was always the same: “I’m happy to have helped,” he would say, and little more.
So it came as a shock when around his 61st birthday, my father’s right hand began to lose its dexterity. Inexplicably, the hand which had performed so many surgeries would respond less and less to his neurological commands to do any basic movements. It wasn’t long before his colleagues in the hospital noticed; as it happened, his first real trial as a Parkinson’s sufferer was not a physical ailment. It was the realization that those who were formerly his admirers now looked upon his diminished abilities with doubt and, sometimes, disdain. It was, in retrospect, perhaps the most humbling part of his illness.
It was shortly thereafter that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and he was told he could no longer perform surgeries. It was a very heavy blow to him. However, my father did not bewail the loss of his surgical abilities. Instead, he stoically accepted his reduced role as a patient evaluator. If his colleagues whispered about his misfortune he didn’t take notice; or, perhaps more likely, he didn’t care. After all, he had often reminded us of the old Roman saying that “All glory is fleeting.” We never once heard him utter a word of self-pity, and he embraced the new cross he was made to bear.
A few years later, in 2001 at the age of 65, my father experienced the first real complication from Parkinson’s. In an attempt to flush an infection, he drank an excessive amount of water. Unbeknownst to him, however, his body wasn’t functioning in ways beyond simple loss of dexterity; he developed hyponatremia, and his feet swelled to almost twice their normal size. His voice became indecipherable, and his weight loss accelerated. He was hospitalized for the first time, and shortly after his release, forced into retirement. It was, if you want to make the comparison, his second fall on the way to his personal Calvary. Now, not only were his skills diminished, but he was also stripped of his ability to see his patients, many of whom he had treated for decades.
Sadly, about this time, my father’s memory also began to fade. Dementia was setting in, and as he gradually became aware of his memory loss, he began to become volatile and paranoid. My brother, Brendan, and I would often take turns tending to him in the middle of the night, whether it was help getting him to the bathroom, or a random, panicked call for assistance of any kind. Little did any of us know at the time that this was merely the end of the beginning of my father’s long agony.
There is little point in discussing in detail the great sufferings my father endured in the intervening years between his first hospitalization and his death. Perhaps similar to a veteran’s war stories, even if you knew the details of each episode, you most likely wouldn’t understand or appreciate the magnitude of it all simply because the experience would have been too foreign even to the most vivid imagination.
In any event, most people who knew of my father’s condition would often remark that they felt sorry for us as caretakers as we were “burdened” with our father’s care. Assisted suicide, surely, was a better option for him. Why suffer these indignities without purpose? But such an opinion is a product of the modern world, which has little use for suffering. All too many vows and commitments become sacrifices upon the altar of convenience. My father knew the value of suffering, and it was our privilege to learn its value from him.
Catholics such as myself can likely tell of many encounters with Protestants who don’t understand why Catholics use as their symbol the crucifix, a cross with an image of Jesus nailed to it. “Jesus has risen. He’s no longer on the cross,” one colleague once remarked to me. “Yes,” I replied, “but we are. The resurrection is the promise; the cross is the reality.” This was never truer than in the case of my father. Like Christ’s own body, my father’s was pierced in multiple places, albeit with tubes and not nails. Instead of being fastened to a cross, he was consigned to a hospital bed. His body, so long his faithful servant, at last became what Hazlitt called a “prison-house of this rude clay.”
Even though much of my free time during 20s and early 30s was spent holding lonely watches with Dad in the hospital or performing the dreary tasks of maintaining Dad’s hygiene, I do not at all lament the sacrifices made during those years. In fact, in a life such as my own, relatively devoid of worthy accomplishment, I found magnanimity in having been of service to my father to the end. It is at once the most significant and meaningful thing I have done in life.
Consider that a caretaker of someone in my father’s condition, you go through a kind of transformation. Initially, I was saddened by my father’s sickness. But, as time went on, the sadness became ambivalence. Ambivalence then turned into impatience, and, finally, it became a kind of resentment. However, I came to learn that suffering is a natural part of the human experience. It is not to be feared, and certainly it is not to be shunned. Why should we, as Christians, expect our lives to be any easier than Christ’s own life was? It was easy enough for me to go to church and pray as long as times were good. It was only when I was called to give service that I understood the true meaning of charity.
It took this experience for me to learn that patience is not necessarily the acceptance of the faults of others, but rather it is the willingness and desire to master our own. Our own strength, if we do not use it to serve others, is mere vanity. Our energies, if not applied with purpose, are wasted. Most importantly, I learned that life, even at its most wretched and miserable, is preferable to death, and that little you will do will have as great an impact as when you ease someone’s suffering, even if only marginally.
Now that he is gone, I can take a moment to appreciate the experience. There is too much to be said for a few paragraphs, but I think the best summation of it all lies in the Latin phrase “cruciatus hominis,” which means the anguish of a man, and which I chose as the title of this remembrance. The obvious inference is that the title refers to my father’s physical suffering, and to a large extent it does. But it also applies to those of us in our family who remain, simultaneously relieved that our father’s suffering is over, yet anguished by the thought that so great a beacon of Christian fortitude and human endurance has been extinguished.
“The virtue of prosperity, is temperance; the virtue of adversity, is fortitude; which in morals is the more heroical virtue. Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament; adversity is the blessing of the New; which carrieth the greater benediction, and the clearer revelation of God’s favor. Yet even in the Old Testament, if you listen to David’s harp, you shall hear as many hearse-like airs as carols; and the pencil of the Holy Ghost hath labored more in describing the afflictions of Job, than the felicities of Solomon. Prosperity is not without many fears and distastes; and adversity is not without comforts and hopes.” – Francis Bacon, Of Adversity
Note: I would like to thank my friends, Jacob Rodenbiker and Sam Lee, for their help in keeping this text coherent and manageable in length. I would also like to thank Fr. Peter R. Scott for his help with choosing the appropriate Latin phrase for the title of this work.