Author Archives

Karen Brown
I'm a writer and public radio reporter based in Western Massachusetts.

Why I Wanted To Finish My Father’s Life’s Work

Illustration by Homestead Studio, inspired by photo supplied by the author

Karen Brown | Longreads | December 2019 | 9 minutes (2,139 words)

“Do you think you’ll pursue more significant work one day?”

That’s the kind of casual barb my father would deliver over breakfast on my visits home after I was well into my career as a radio journalist.

That may seem unsupportive, which was not typical. He was the emotional rock in my life for 50 years. He chaperoned my elementary school dances, read every article I wrote for the high school newspaper, and later, sent around news of my journalism awards to his friends and colleagues. Every year, he wrote me a birthday card extolling all the ways he admired me.

And yet. He had this dream for my career, that I would become a nationally prominent journalist who might one day topple a presidency and change the world. Instead I became a regionally-respected public radio reporter who mostly does health-related features.

He made those comments about his tempered expectations to let me know he could be both loving and honest. But to me, they felt annoying and unfair. In the end, we’d reach a mutual understanding that no one gets to do exactly what they dream of.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those conversations as I put my own writing projects on the back burner to try to finish my father’s final book.
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Ushering My Father to a (Mostly) Good Death

Photo courtesy of Karen Brown

Karen Brown | Longreads | November 2017 | 14 minutes (3,613 words)

 

“How about Tuesday?”

My father is propped up on three pillows in bed, talking logistics with my sister and me. We’ve just brought him his Ovaltine and insulin.

“Or would Thursday be better? That’s a couple days after the kids are done with camp.”

“Ok, let’s plan on Thursday.”

My father is scheduling his death. Sort of. He’s deciding when to stop going to dialysis. That starts the bodily clock that will lead to his falling into sleep more and more often, and then into a coma, and eventually nothingness.

He is remarkably sanguine about the prospect, which we’ve all had a long time to consider. A master of the understatement, he promises it’s not a terribly hard decision, to stop treatment and let nature takes its course, “but it is a bit irreversible.”

If I’m honest, he’s ready now to stop dialysis. It’s a brutal routine for someone in his condition, incredibly weak and fragile from living with end-stage pancreatic cancer, kidney disease, and diabetes. It’s painful for him to hold his head and neck up, which he has to do to get to the dialysis center. During the procedure, he must be closely watched so his blood pressure doesn’t plummet.

But he’s always been a generous man. He’s willing to sacrifice his own comfort in his dying days for the convenience of his family, since we all want to be present at the end. If he pushes his last day of dialysis to Tuesday, then my sister can still go on the California vacation she’d been planning with her family. If he pushes it to Thursday, I can still take the journalism fellowship I’d accepted. It will also give his grandchildren time to finish up their summer jobs and fly down.
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