Go Not Gently…

My Uncle Don died in the wee hours Sunday morning. We knew his condition was grave – he’d been in the ICU for a week already being treated for tuberculosis and a staph infection in his lungs, and on a respirator they couldn’t wean him off of – but we’d hoped against all knowledge of how these things usually go that even at 80 years old, he’d be able to rally and recover. I drove with my mom out to Tucson on Saturday to see him, the unspoken reason to say goodbye. We got there just in time to have a bite to eat and be lulled into a false sense of security over his condition before being called to the hospital around a quarter after nine. He’d been much better that day, his color good and his expression peaceful. Then he coded. They brought him back. He coded again. My mom and I arrived at the hospital right after they’d brought him back the second time, pumped sky-high full of blood pressure meds to keep his BP at low-normal levels. The respirator breathing for him. His O2 perfusion at unacceptably low levels. He’d simply been too long without enough oxygen to his brain for the docs to do anything. Despite his heart being in otherwise good condition, his lungs were too damaged to deliver.

He’d raged against the dying of the light. He’d fought the TB unknowingly on his own for six months, he’d fought going into the hospital, and he fought dying. His wife and two of his three kids were there when he coded the second time and watched him be rescuscitated. I’m glad they did, because by the second time the docs brought him back and he’d been short of oxygen for too long and the on-call had to explain to his wife that there was nothing more they could do for him, his body had been through hell. Some folks wouldn’t accept that it was the end and would insist on keeping his body going at all costs, but my aunt saw how hard it was on him to be dragged back from dead and decided to let him go the next time. It only took about 3 hours after that for him to give up the ghost, and at the end he went peacefully. We stayed in the room with him the entire time and told him that we loved him and that it was time for him to rest and stop struggling for air, that we would all be okay and would take care of each other.

His was the first non-violent death I’ve been witness to… I’ve never stood deathwatch before. I’ve seen maybe 20-30 people die, been right there in the thick of it fighting for them the whole way. It was always messy and loud and horrible, sometimes even dangerous to us, depending on who came in with the wounded, and the violence that caused their deaths was only compounded by the what we did trying to save their lives. They say we always know how to fight the last war… there was nothing for me to do this time but touch him, rub his feet and tell him that it was all right to go. To pass those little boxes of scratchy hospital Kleenex around the room. And to hold my aunt while she cried. They’d been married 54 years, and still adored each other. To be loved like that… I wonder sometimes if people nowadays are capable of that kind of commitment to each other when life’s inconveniences get in the way. I hope that TGP and I always remember their example when life starts to get in our way.

I’d read about others’ experiences of being with the dying, but I’ve never been aware before of the stillness that fills a room when warm flesh turns to cold wax, never seen that moment passing when the body seems to grow more dense and sink into the bed as if rooting right there. There had always been something else going on, somebody yelling for more blood or one last thing to try, just in case we could save the patient. And then an operating room to clear so we could get on to the next case or three stacked up in the hallway.

I was touching him when his nurse turned off the respirator and his heart stopped beating. I actually felt his body get heavier under my hand as his spirit lifted free. I haven’t really processed it all yet – there’s still too much else going on with figuring out when the services will be, hotels, food, what I’m behind on now in school, what I need to catch up on at work… the assorted minutia of the living who carry on.

But I think his was a better death than what I’ve seen before. The hell with going out in a blaze of glory. Quietly, in bed, surrounded by people who love you, at the end of a long and happy life. Better.

Uncle Don, godspeed. I love you.

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