Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Watching Death Arrive
At 60 years old, Pat was the second oldest of 10 children. He had five children of his own, four of whom were at his bedside when he died. One of the five was the adopted daughter of his second wife. He had raised her from the time she was in diapers. He loved her like one of his own. To the point that she was the only child to have power of attorney.
Except for serving in Vietnam, Pat spent his life as a farmer in Kentucky. We suspect that exposure to farming chemicals, smoking (which he quit 20 years ago) and possibly chemicals in Vietnam contributed to his cancer.
Pat's youngest son and my oldest son are the same age and best buddies. Much of their social lives are spent in each others company.
I've maintained a friendly relationship with my ex-wife's family. These are the aunts, uncles and cousins of my kids. I want everyone to feel comfortable. One brother-in-law who works in HVAC fixed my furnace for free during Christmas time.
Although I knew Pat had cancer, receiving a phone call at work at noon that he was in the hospital dying caught me by surprise. His lungs and other areas of his body had been attacked by the cancer. They were planning to take him off life support in an hour and my son was already there. In his living will he had requested not to be on life support unless there was a chance of recovery.
I immediately left work and drove over. Because of the morphine, I couldn't tell if Pat was aware of any one's presence. We took turns visiting him. His oldest son stayed with him non-stop. After about 5 hours the nurse told us he wouldn't last much longer.
We all went in to be with him. His breathing became shallower and quicker. Then it slowed down. His last few breaths were spaced 30-60 seconds apart. His children were telling him they loved him and it was OK for him to go. His siblings were saying the same. I stood in the back with a couple of tears rolling down my cheek. Finally, he never took another break.
The doctor and nurse came in and checked his heart and affirmed his death.
I gave a few hugs and quietly left. This was their tragedy and I needed to let them share it without interference.
Throughout the happenings, I thought back to how my own brother had lay in the hospital dying and his pain and suffering. Pat was more fortunate, if you can think of like that, in that his suffering was less prolonged. Because my brother's death was many years ago, I felt better prepared to deal with Pat's death but it was far from easy.
I'd never watched a person die before. I could hardly look at Pat at first during the final few minutes. I distracted my mind by counting his respiration's. My brain seems to like technical tasks. In the end, I was glad I was there.
During the hour trip home, I though back to my brother and when he died. He had been only 33 years old. Like Pat, he had served in the Navy. I thought of my daughter and how, at 12 years old, she had already seen three of her grandparents die, her basketball coach (who was also the father of one of her good friends) and now an uncle.
Then it struck me how all her relatives had died in the winter. It's especially chilling to stand in the cemetery while enduring a cold wind and snow. I thought back to my brother again, who had also died in the winter. Not being one to necessarily know the each day's date, I checked my cell phone. My brother had died 22 years ago to the day. I shed another tear and drove on.
pax Christi on you.
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