Wednesday, August 08, 2012

My Dying Uncle

"Is he taking any fluids?" I asked. "Not anymore," Mom replied. "He's mostly unconscious, but when he's somewhat lucid he's seeing people on both sides of the veil."

So this time would be different than the numerous times over the previous few months that Mom has told me that her oldest surviving brother was on his way out. He's been dying of cancer so long that the fact that he still survives in his mid 90s defies current medical understanding.

As I thought of my cousins on death watch, I couldn't help but hear in the back of my mind my Dad's labored breathing on his deathbed four years ago. Mom had been on constant watch at the hospital for a week and a half. I had spent nearly every moment I could spare up there.

When they told us that Dad was close to passing, my two older brothers drove from their more distant homes to be there. One younger brother was traveling back east. Another was traveling homeward and couldn't get to the hospital until the following morning.

The four of us—Mom, my two older brothers, and me—kept the grim watch as the evening wore into the night and then into the wee hours of the morning. It had been more than a day and a half since Dad had moved at all other than to breathe.

It pained me to sit there and watch Dad breathe. His bones rose up through the thinning skin of his emaciated form with each deep labored breath. Except for one brief moment around 2 am, the dreaded pattern of Dad's breathing seemed to go on unchanged, sounding almost like some horrible aspirating machine.

A little before 4 am my brothers sent me home to rest, out of concern for my own health issues. As I walked from the hospital room I was fully aware that I might never see Dad alive again. That thought didn't bother me much because of an experience I had had a couple of days earlier.

During the last few weeks of Dad's life I used up a lot of leave at work while trying to spend as much time as I could helping and being with Mom and Dad. Dad went downhill pretty fast after being admitted to the hospital. He was in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he tried to communicate coherently with us. Other times he was obviously experiencing psychological distress and/or physical discomfort. The hospital staff was very good about trying to help Dad be as comfortable as possible. But finally he was unconscious most of the time.

Per my regular pattern, I returned home late one night after spending the entire evening at the hospital. Early in the morning I got ready for work. But as I backed the car out of the driveway I felt an overwhelming urge to turn toward the hospital rather than turning toward my office. Somehow I just knew that I had to go to the hospital; although, Mom hadn't called and I had just been at the hospital hours earlier.

I chided myself as I drove toward the hospital, knowing that this trip would cost me yet more leave from work—time that would end up shortchanging my wife and kids when it came to family vacation. But I simply couldn't ignore the deep prompting I had felt.

Mom was surprised to see me walk into the hospital room, which was unusually bright because the blinds were open. To my surprise, Dad opened his eyes and recognized me. I pulled a chair up to his bed and he motioned for me to lean in so that we could embrace.

Dad's ability to verbally communicate fully coherent thoughts had been impaired by a stroke a year and a half earlier. But the real verbal communication problem was that Dad's diminishing heart function was supplying diminishing levels of blood and oxygen to his brain.

Still, we talked for a few minutes. Dad was the most lucid I had seen him for days. He made me promise that I would get my Mom into a more suitable home after he passed. We expressed our love for each other. Then Dad lay his head on his pillow and went to sleep. That was the final lucid moment of Dad's life.

I thought about that as I drove home from the hospital after my brothers dismissed me. I was exhausted as I climbed into bed. Part of me felt like I was shirking my duty to be at the hospital. But another part of me was relieved that I didn't have to watch Dad's labored breathing. 45 minutes after I closed my eyes the phone rang. I picked it up to hear my brother report that Dad had passed.

I quickly dressed and returned to the hospital. My youngest brother soon arrived. For nearly an hour we sat around Dad's bed and reminisced. It may sound macabre for family members to sit around the corpse of a loved one. But it was actually a very comforting and even spiritual experience. We stayed until the morticians arrived to discreetly remove Dad's remains.

Before long my cousins will have a similar experience. As with my Dad's passing, I hope that the bitterness of separation will be tempered by the sweetness of the memories of a life well lived and love well shared.

No comments: