Tuesday, October 20, 2009

O Death

Death, oh where is thy sting ?

My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord

Hospice has a booklet called “Gone from my sight”, that I was handed as some point, but I put it aside, assuming it was about grieving and how to deal with it. I was grieving, so I didn’t think I needed to be told how, not right them anyway.

After it was over, I picked it up, and it is about what happens to people as they approach their death. Some of the information I knew from watching animals die, and my grandfather’s death, but there was much that I saw happening with Don that it appears was normal for folks facing death.

When someone is about to give birth, everyone knows what to look for: the baby is dropping, twinges of false labor, contractions and how far apart, the water breaks. Perfect strangers will come up to you and tell you you’re having a boy or girl because (insert folk “wisdom” here), they will ask you when you are due (only a guess), and even later the infant is the object of much interest. At any rate, a public event in the “village”.

Death, on the other hand we hide from, hoping it can happen out of sight, hoping it’s quick, or perhaps seeking extraordinary means to keep it from happening at all. We got a lot of suggestions about Don’s approaching death, from seeking out the big guns of medical establishment to dietary suggestions but no one really knows how it happens.

Do we need to know this? Do we want to know this? I asked the nurse later how she decided when to give out the booklet, she said it is a pretty delicate matter of timing, because of our cultural avoidance of the subject, and also individual reactions to approaching death. I wished I had read it long before, for I learned that many things that worried me about him in those last weeks were normal, expected signs of approaching death.

Don slept a lot, napping in bed most of the day or in his big chair, and seemed lost in his mind, not interested in even a Dodger’s game, or listening to me read to him. It looked to me like depression, but this withdrawing from the real world is part of the preparation. What was he doing in there? Getting ready to die, to say good bye to this world, his body, and me. Setting aside these earthly coils, getting ready for the moment reported by those who have “died” when they float above their bodies looking down. Letting go of the busy things we do to fill our days. I confess I felt a little distanced, we mostly held each other, touch instead of words. We had a litany of things we said over and over to each other for comfort. But I missed our amiable squabbling and sorting of the day’s events, and most of all planning for the future.

The worst sign of approaching death for me was he gradually stopped eating much of anything. I love to cook, he loved to eat, I found myself weeping when he took a bite or two and wasn’t hungry, as though it was a personal failure on my part. His body knew he would soon need no food or drink and turned away from it, but also from me again. The cupboards are still full of food I bought to tempt him. I did remember my grandfather eating only half a blueberry muffin now and then.

Other odd things, like picking at the bedclothes while he slept, and tiny tremors are to be expected, although I assumed much of this was from the strokes. He would suddenly be sweaty hot, and then chilly, often needing a blanket or a towel to mop the sweat. All the systems in his body began to slacken, and work fitfully. His ability to navigate fell apart, not really disoriented but a little confused.( My Grandfather was found down stairs in his 3 piece suit, calling a cab in the middle of the night to take him to North Station in Boston. He knew he could take his usual train home and be OK, but otherwise was lost.)

As his time got really close, his fingers and toes began to cool, his legs mottled as if cold, and his breathing rate and heart rate would race or slow way down, he would suddenly be sweaty hot, and then chilly. The nurses assured me that he could still hear me, so I sang and prayed and told stories. It took along time for the heat to leave his body, I held my hand under him to feel it, the last of him, although he was actually dead, as long as the warmth of him was there, I couldn’t leave him. His color was like old ivory, like a netusuke carving of an old wise man.

I hope this doesn’t upset you, gentle reader, it makes me weep to read it, it seems important to record his death, for me, and also if it can guide someone through a sad time, it would be good to understand these transitions, expect them.

I’m listening to Brahms’ German Requiem, which is making me cry, but also it feels like a release.


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