One time in the nursing home, someone called my dad a racist.

He had accused one of the aides of stealing his clothes out of the laundry. It wasn't true. But he'd started to lose track of his things, and that was the explanation that made the most sense to him at the time. Anyway, the aide was black, and disliked my dad already after some earlier incident, so her brain jumped to the worst justification. I don't fault her for it; there were a lot of racist patients there. But my dad got really upset about it. The last time I remember him being that upset about anything was when my cousin died of an overdose, and that was ten years earlier.

He ranted and raved and cried to me about it. Through tears and sobs he told me how he'd never been racist, and how he'd been around for the civil rights movement, and how he'd always thought of everyone as equals. I believed him, but I didn't really care about whether or not he was racist. In that moment I could have cared less about racism, or race in general. Or fairness. Or society. In that moment, I just didn't want him to be upset.

When someone is dying, the people around them take up a peculiar position. In a way, I loved my dad more, and valued my time with him more. But in my desperate attempts to make him happy and comfortable, I also cared less and less about his opinions, his dreams, his memories, his values. I cared about "him" as an abstract, ungrounded concept. When someone is dying, they no longer fit within the normal framework of what it means to be a person in society. I lost a model of how to treat him as a human, and replaced it with something else.

You want them to be happy, sure. Comfortable, cared for, loved, of course. But once there's no chance of them living, you really just want them to die.

So when the aide accused my dad of being a racist, I didn't try to mediate the conflict. I didn't try to understand what had happened, or consider how to prevent it from happening in the future. I didn't work with the staff to find his missing clothes. These complex, interconnected problems didn't exist for me. The only problem was that my dad was upset. I needed to make him happy. I tried to listen, and calm him down, told him he wasn't a racist and that it was all going to be OK. It eventually blew over and he stopped being upset about it. Which is good. You can't die upset.

Over the next few months, there were other incidents like this. Sometimes I was able to be there for him. Sometimes I wasn't. I tried I guess. Eventually he died, and I don't know if he was happy or not. His face looked pained. Maybe he wished I had treated him more like a human, with more respect, instead of just trying to take care of him. Maybe that's just the face you make when you die.