Monday, June 27, 2011

Not Like the Movies

I had a lot of writing to do (actual paying work!) today, so I figured I may as well keep Grandpa company at the hospice. They have Wi-Fi and a quiet environment with few distractions, so why not? When I announced to my family Sunday night that I intended to get up early on Monday to go to the hospice, they were doubtful. If I wake up during a single-digit hour, it's usually PM, not AM!

Monday I awoke at 6 AM, hit the road early, and beat most of the traffic on the Kennedy Expressway. After a good breakfast at the Egg Harbor Cafe (Matt's Meaty Skillet, fitting the "comfort food" theme that has been bulging the family's waistlines lately), I drove the short distance to the hospice. When the staff made rounds, the doctor told me Grandpa was deteriorating but that he could last another day or two or even five. I called my mom with an update, but mostly just to let her know I was there so early. Then I talked to a nurse who answered questions such as what can or should I say to Grandpa and how do they know when the time is near? She said it's okay to tell him to let go and to assure him that everyone will be fine. Apparently some patients miss the point of hospice and try to hang on for one reason or another. As for the other question, she said, among other things, that often patients will stop breathing for a few seconds or more (apnea) and then start up again in a cycle until eventually they just don't start up again.

I always feel weird talking to a sedated person -- who knows what he actually hears? -- but I gave it a shot. Then I went back to my writing project. Every so often I'd look over at Grandpa to see his chest rise and fall. But then I noticed he wasn't breathing. Then he started again, gasping. A bit later he stopped for what seemed like a minute but was likely 5-7 seconds.

I don't know where the nurses came from. I didn't call them, and there wasn't any kind of monitor on Grandpa that would beep a warning, but suddenly they appeared. Maybe hospice nurses are like angels on Earth, hovering in the hallways and swooping in when they sense they are needed.*

I wondered aloud, "I guess I'd better call anyone who wants to be here?" A nurse nodded. I called my mom first since she had the furthest to travel. Grandpa's breathing stopped for a bit, then started again. I called one of my aunts. No answer, and I sure as heck wasn't going to leave a message. I called my other aunt while another call (the first aunt calling back) went to my voice mail. As I frantically pressed buttons on my phone, I looked up to see one of the nurses with a stethoscope looking back at me. I don't remember any words or gestures; I could see it in her eyes. He was gone, just like that. No desperate cries or even a shudder. I've never witnessed a death before, but this was nothing like they show in the movies, just a peaceful slipping away.

Oh shit, now I have to call everyone again. I felt sort of like the lousy player they send out to right field because it's unlikely someone will hit the ball there. Then suddenly it's a long fly ball, and I run, bewildered, toward the fence to make the catch. In all the time I kept a vigil by his bed this month, I hadn't given much thought to witnessing my grandfather's last moments. Today I figured I was just hanging around to keep him company until his daughters came in the late afternoon. This wasn't supposed to happen on my watch!

It happened so quickly, too. Later someone asked what time he died, and when I looked at the record of dialed calls on my cell phone, there was a mere two-minute gap between the call telling my aunt to get here soon and the second call to say he was gone. All morning his breathing had been a little shallow yet steady, but within minutes everything had changed.

In retrospect, I'm glad I was there, and I even feel kind of honored to witness his passing, if that makes any sense. The rest of my family was glad that I was there -- if I hadn't had this project to work on, he probably would have died without anyone familiar present. I don't know whether that matters at all to the dying, but the living take comfort in such things. Although the hospice nurses discouraged the thought, I think we all felt a bit guilty after Grandma died alone.

Grandpa's journey is over after a very difficult June. He died exactly four months after his wife of 62 years. The wake is Wednesday and the funeral is Thursday, so at least this won't stretch into July. We are relieved that it's over (the hospice people assure us it's okay to feel this way) and comforted that Grandpa got to live and die on his own terms, and in such a nice place (the last intelligible words anyone heard were on Saturday when he arrived at the hospice; he looked at one of his daughters and said, "Thank you very much" -- I'd like to think he knew exactly what was going on and that we were doing what he wanted). Of course, this also means that the project I was working on this morning isn't the only writing assignment I have that's due this Thursday.

* Okay, so later my mother reminded me that they have video cameras monitoring every room. But I prefer my poetic interpretation.

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