“I wonder why I’m sleeping so much,” he said, as if he truly didn’t understand it.
I reply, “Your body is shutting down. So you sleep. Your metabolism has changed.”
Of course, the fact that he was on a low dose of morphine administered more than once a day had something to do with it, too, but I didn’t point that out. I had said, “Your body is shutting down,” and not, “You’re dying.” We both knew he was dying. I’d been more willing to say it than him, but I didn’t need to say it again.
His hospice nurse thought that this comment was meant to prepare me for his death. I almost snorted at that. I’d been prepared for his death for some time; he hadn’t been. He understood he was dying at this point, but he didn’t seem to understand that he might not just go from being lucid and vital to dying in an instant, that, instead, his body might shut down slowly.
On December 23rd, he asked what day it was and I said, “It’s Mom’s—my Mom’s—birthday, December 23rd. My mother had been gone since 1995, but I always remembered her birthday.
I was taken aback when he replied, “Do you want me to die on your mother’s birthday?”
“Well, that’s up to you,” I said. “And I think of death as more like graduation.”
And it was time for him to graduate. He was fading. He was now attempting to use the commode instead of fighting his way to the bathroom, but whatever in him still held on to some sense of personal dignity inhibited him. He was having trouble managing the pull-ups and I’d had to change the sheets in between hospice visits. He couldn’t bathe himself but wouldn’t let anyone else bathe him, either. The previous day, I had managed to get his bed in order and had given him some clean clothes, but after undressing and struggling with the pull-ups, he’d accidentally put the dirty clothes back on. He had spent his limited supply of energy and had just gone back to sleep in his dirty clothes.
Later, he awoke and said, “I think I’ll take a shower today.”
I’d thought that we were past that. There was no way he could make the short trip from the guest bedroom, down the hall, into the master bedroom, and into the shower. He barely had enough strength to sit up. Yet he believed he could do it with my help. My help? When he went down—and he would surely go down—he would go down like an ancient tree and would take me with him.
I reminded him of the debacle some days earlier. He’d insisted on taking a shower and was going to struggle his way to it. I’d at least convinced him to wait for the hospice nurse to help him. I’d actually thought she would talk him out of it, but he was determined and she was willing to stick with him until he demonstrated to himself that he couldn’t manage it. His oxygen tank in tow, he’d managed to make his way to the master bath. It had probably taken forty-five minutes to an hour to get that far. But he couldn’t actually get into the shower. He sat, defeated, on the toilet and allowed the nurse to at least wash his torso and legs. Then it was a very long struggle back to the bed.
But when I mentioned that event, his reply was, “I did shower.” I reminded him of what had transpired and his faulty cognitive function kicked into high gear and brought back enough of the affair for him to recall that he hadn’t actually gotten into the shower that day. “She kept saying, ‘You don’t have to do this,’” he said, “so I eventually let her do it.”
Let her wash him, he meant—something he could scarce imagine.
He slept most of the day on the 23rd. I had a hair appointment I badly needed to keep, but I thought I would have to cancel it because I could not leave Howard alone at all at this point. But Cindy Morris made keeping my appointment possible. She agreed to come and keep an eye on Howard. I asked her to just sit in the dining room, facing the closed door to the guest room, and stop Howard if he tried to leave the room. He couldn’t make it the bathroom any longer but frequently forgot that fact and would attempt to get up to make the trip. He needed to be protected from himself and she had the grit to agree to be his protector, even if for only an hour and a half or so. It was hugely courageous and an equally huge gift to me.
When I got back home, I heated up some homemade soup for the two of us. She’d brought some vegetables and a small dessert to go with it. We were eating and chatting when I realized, with a start, that I hadn’t given Howard his morphine on schedule. I left the table and went into his room. Unfortunately, he had made his way from the bed to the commode and barked at me when I opened the door. He might be dying, but he still wanted complete privacy when it came to the commode. I backed up and went back to the table.
We had the monitor on the table with us and could hear him straining and in discomfort. Was he trying to get back to bed? Was he struggling with the pull-ups? I couldn’t quite decipher what he was doing from the sound. After a time, I went back to the room. He was still on the commode. This time he didn’t just bark, he swore at me. In fact, we could hear the “God damn you, Melanie,” over the monitor as he continued to swear at me after I left him alone and was back at the table. More time elapsed. I was worried about him. This time I knocked. More swearing.
Cindy was a trooper. She just took it in stride. I was concerned about Howard, and I made every attempt not to take his swearing at me personally. He was dying. He was losing cognitive functioning and what cognitive ability he had left was very annoyed by his failing body and the fact that he couldn’t hide the fact that his body was failing.
Once dinner was over and we’d chatted for a time—our talk punctuated by Howard’s swearing, as heard over the monitor—she’d had enough and was ready to leave. But just as she was getting ready to go, an ambulance came down the street in front of my house, lights flashing. It swung off E. 3rd and onto Bellaire, the cul-de-sac my house sat next to. More emergency vehicles followed. They all pulled up to a house in the middle of the street. While we didn’t know the couple living in the house, we’d seen the man who lived there many times, attending to his yard and sitting in a chair, just inside his garage, watching the neighborhood.
Cindy stayed. We looked out the back door and talked about what we’d done as children when emergency trucks pulled into the neighborhood. She’d grown up in the Bronx; I’d grown up in small towns in the Midwest. But it seems that the response was universal, at least when we were growing up. We would stop whatever we were doing and either peek out our windows or go outdoors for a good view of the activity. Life drama, right in front of us, had been more compelling that eating, sleeping, television, work, or anything else. Everyone we knew when we were growing up came to a stop when emergency vehicles were anywhere nearby. The girl from the Bronx and the girl from the Midwest still did.
Someone was brought out on a stretcher, but it was difficult to tell for sure if it was a man or a woman. Someone was ill or injured bad enough for an ambulance to have been called. Could someone be dying across the street? What were the chances of two people on the same block dying—or close to it—at the same time? Everything in my life had become a bit surrealistic, but this sent my mind sliding off the edge.
And then I had a moment of complete clarity. I had been so focused on my little patch of earth at 1093 E. 3rd Ave. and the drama in my own home for so long, I’d lost perspective, lost the understanding that drama was happening elsewhere—often nearby—all the time. It hit me in the gut, moved up to my brain, then settled in my heart: At any given time, there are people within a block of me enduring one drama or another. Someone might be dying. Another might be grieving a death. A third might be suffering a serious illness or suffering through a divorce. Someone else might be in the deep well of chronic depression. One of these people might share their suffering with me but most wouldn’t. I didn’t even know most of the people who lived nearby. But I understood, in one flash that moved through my system like an electrical charge and settled in my heart, that there was now and always would be suffering around me.
I was changed by it. There was something utterly tragic about it and, at the same time, there was something comforting about the fact that others were sharing this aspect of the human condition. I was appalled by the fact that any part of the knowing gave me comfort and was stricken with sadness by the thought that there would always be others nearby suffering. My heart constricted in pain. And then it opened a little wider than it had been before—to take it all in and make a home for it.
Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall