Friday, March 16, 2007

RE: I saw someone die today

A friend of mine is studying to become a nurse and had her first direct experience with death. This was my response to her forum posting:


I haven't had a direct experience with death, but did lose my father to cancer back in the fall. He was fortunately only in hospital for his final ten days, still at home with my mother and cat before then, and even out on the golf course a few weeks prior to that. His final week was brutal though -- I was struck continuously by images of the Titanic movie and the violence with which the ship went down, not slipping quietly beneath the waves like I'd always pictured.

Dad lost all desire to eat, and it was painful because mom kept trying to get him to have something. It was only later that we'd learn (from the pamphlet the hospital gave us which we never read) that loss of appetite is a natural part of the body's shutting down, and nothing that needs to be countered. Medications kept him asleep most of the time, but when not asleep he was obviously wracked by tremendous pain.

His mind became confused and at times he re-lived experiences from his past. I remember recognizing a work scenario as he directed me for five minutes or more to adjust his tray table up and down, up and down; until it was exactly in the right position. In his mind I knew he was a fitter again, directing a crane operator to place a multi-ton assembly onto the back of another, somewhere in the depths of a dingy old steel plant.

Dad was born and raised in Germany and in his final four days spoke only in German, confused about where he was and constantly trying to get out of bed. It made things difficult for the hospital staff, and was painful to witness. Yet while he no longer communicated directly we knew that our voices did reach him, as he'd calm down and sometimes squeezed our hands when we spoke. It was tough to come up with endless one-way conversations, trying not to repeat ourselves to avoid frustrating him, but we all did our best.

In his last two days he didn't get up at all and we knew that he could go at any time. I'd stop by the hospital both before and after work, but being there was so difficult once he'd stopped communicating that I could never stay for long before squirming to be out again. It was funny, he'd always been the same way when visiting my wife in hospital, now I understood. Mom never left his side though, even sleeping there and only going home for an hour or so to get changed and feed the cat.

There were false alarms when they thought he was going, and when the real call came I was asleep at home in front of the TV, so tired and shell-shocked that I immediately fell back asleep and didn't even call my brother to relay the message like I'd said I would. A half hour later when the phone rang again, it was mom, and he was gone. I'd not only lost the opportunity to be with dad one last time, but felt like I'd denied it to my brother. I phoned him then, and we both rushed to the hospital to see mom and say our goodbyes to dad. There was a terrible peacefulness, but I think for all of us it was a relief to know that his torment was finally over. For months I've felt guilty over having fallen back asleep that night, but talking with mom now she's glad that it was just her and him at the end, her husband of 45 years.

I had missed his passing but it was moving just to hold his hand a final time, still warm even though he was gone. As we left the room I turned around for one last thing and snapped a picture with my camera phone. He was weakened, unshaved, dishevelled, and slumped; yet at the same time so peaceful. The lights were off so you can barely make out the image; I even forget what it is each time I come across that blackened little square. Then I remember, and by remembering it suddenly becomes so clear. I treasure that photo.

My father opted for cremation so we knew there would be no casket, no viewing. The funeral director surprised us though, and offered to shave, prepare and dress him for a private viewing; to which my mother and brother immediately said no. I was devastated but didn't want to go against them, and said no as well. As we left the funeral home I summoned up the courage though, and asked mom if I could see him alone. She was okay with that and I made the arrangements with the director. At home we picked out his final clothes, ones we knew he liked and that looked sharp, yet were casual and informal.

When the viewing came two days later, mom was glad I'd spoken up and asked if she could come along. It was good to see dad as himself again, not broken and weak like he'd been in the hospital. At the same time it was clear that he was not himself; when I took his hand it was cold, shockingly cold, and at that moment I truly knew that he was gone.

We've all since agreed that that would have been a good time to take a photo. The thought had crossed my mind as I walked away that final time, but it seemed suddenly distasteful; and I spat it out like a bitter watermelon seed. There's times I wish I had that photo then other times I'm glad that I don't -- it wouldn't really have been a photo of him, anyway. I treasure that one from the hospital though, as dark and indistinct as it is. That one is just for me, and when I look at it I'm right there with him at the end again, in that terrible peace, and I can say goodbye.


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