My dad passed away on June 16, 2002 at 4:45PM. That was yesterday, and I knew at 4:45 yesterday that it had been 9 years. I was also contemplating something that happened only 2 or 3 weeks earlier, something that seemed to change my dad, at least in my mother's eyes, and kind of in my eyes as well.

Dad wasn't doing great, and I called his doctor with a bit of advice. I said he owed it to my dad to visit him at home and talk to him one final time if he could. My dad had been going to this man for many years and I just felt it was the right thing to do. I have to admit that I wasn't overly pleased with some of the care Dad had been getting from this guy in the short time I knew him, so I was somewhat forceful in my phone conversation with him, though I didn't yell; let's say I was persistent.

I wasn't there the day this doctor showed up at the house, but I knew he was going to be there. I live 90 minutes from my parent's house, and had something else going on that day. But my mother was there, and she was initially happy when the doctor showed up at the house.

From what I understand, he and my dad talked for about 5 minutes or so. Dad seemed to have a way to pull out of whatever malaise it is that sometimes affects cancer patients for awhile whenever a guest would show up, at least for a little while. So Mom listened as Dad and this doctor had a conversation. Then Mom said the doctor suddenly said this to my dad: "Have you thought about how you want to die."

Mom was stunned, and supposedly Dad didn't say another word after that. In the final weeks of my dad's life, he never said a word to me. He never looked at me or Mom; he constantly stared at the ceiling. I don't really know if it was the illness my dad had or what this man said to him, but my dad wasn't himself over the last weeks of his life.

I thought that was a horrendous thing for a physician to say to a patient at that period of time. Dad was in a hospital bed in the family room. We all knew in our hearts that there might not have been a lot of time left, but no one was ever going to say it out loud. Years later, even though I was still upset with this man, I always wondered if his intention was to see if Dad wanted to go into Hospice. Unfortunately it never came up because the physician could probably see that he messed up, and he didn't talk to my mother except to say goodbye; we never saw him again.

Fast forward to two days ago. My grandmother is in a nursing home, having just been there a couple of weeks. They have what they call a course of care meeting with family members where they update what's going on once a month, but they also give a two-week update to the families of new residents. I had a meeting to go to locally, so I didn't drive in to Rochester for this meeting, but called in via a conference line; my mother was there live.

Someone started talking and things were going about as well as could be expected. Ten minutes in the doctor, who neither my mother or I had ever met, starts talking, and within two minutes he said this: "Mrs. Beverly is exhibiting signs of failure to thrive, and I don't expect her to live more than 6 months."

Nope, didn't see that coming, and Mom didn't see it coming either. I heard her cry, and I immediately felt like the worst son in the world for not being there. Lucky for me, the logical mind kicked in at that moment and started asking more questions based on what he said, and after about 10 more minutes I fully understood what everyone was saying and why they had this belief. Mom, it turns out, had checked out immediately upon hearing the doctor's prognosis. A couple of hours later, after my meeting, I drove to Rochester to be with my mother for awhile, just to make sure everything was okay.

I thought much about things on my drive there and on my way back home. I thought about this doctor and what he'd said. I thought about how he said it. There was no emotion in his voice. He wasn't trying to hurt us; he didn't know us. I realized that he probably has to tell everyone at some point this same bit of news, and that probably no one takes it the way he intends for it to be taken. All of us have different beliefs about our family members; we all believe things will be well, or as well as can be expected.

In other words, I knew this doctor had to tell us something difficult, and there was no other way of saying what he had to say. And I couldn't fault him for that. I was thankful that he told me and my mother and not my grandmother, though. I'm not sure of the mental state of my grandmother; I don't even want to risk anyone saying something like that to her.

And maybe that's the difference in the two approaches. Maybe if Dad's doctor had said what he had to say to my mother and myself we'd have a much different feeling about him. I'm not really sure, but that's how I'm feeling about it all today. I will say this though. Sometimes there's just no easy way to say something difficult, and in those times you just have to say it. You should try to be one of two things; either as compassionate as you can be or as dispassionate as you can be. It all depends on how well you know the person you're talking to.

However, if it has to be said, you have to say it. And, unfortunately, sometimes we have to hear it as well.