Monday, September 7, 2009

A death remembered

The first time I ever saw someone die was two years ago today.

I arrived at Denver International Airport sometime in late morning or early afternoon on September 7, 2007, and my sister and her partner picked me up at the airport. They asked if I was comfortable going to the hospice, especially since it was all just a matter of time before my father would pass. I wasn't sure if I was comfortable, but I went anyway.

My oldest brother and his wife were there. My siblings, except the one who, like me, didn't live in Colorado, had been visiting my father in shifts. My father, who was a tall person (over 6 feet) and rather heavyset, seemed very small on the bad, as he gasped regularly for breaths of air.

My father shared his room with another person who was also dying. Two of this person's friends were there. It was clear that they had gotten to know my siblings in the past couple of weeks. The shared experience was some sort of bond for them.

We all left briefly to get some sandwiches for ourselves and for these other people in the room.

We ate in the cafeteria of the hospice. My brother and sister talked about the times when they left home and started out on their own. To my surprise, because I had remembered it all differently, they described it as "running away" from home.

We came back and my father was much obviously closer to death. He continued to breathe, but he was noticeably paler than even a half hour or so before. The hospice nurse said that patients tend to keep from dying while family are around, and when we had left, he must've progressed much more to that end because we were not around.

My brother talked to him. Told him it was okay to die. Told him they would all have coffee together on the other side, like they used to at Denny's (or whatever the name of that restaurant was they used to go to).

My father's breathing was more and more labored. He opened his eyes in my direction. My sister's partner told me "he's looking at you." He breathed in but didn't seem to breathe out again. For some reason a line from James Joyce's Dubliners (from the short story called "A Painful Case") flashed through my head: "His father died. The president of the bank retired."

We all cried for a few minutes. The crying started spontaneously and stopped just as suddenly.

The two other people, who were staying with their friend in the same room, stood up and bowed their heads out of respect.

The hospice nurse came in and verified that my father had died.

On the cusp of death, he had seemed small and frail. Now, after dying, his body re-assumed the proportions I had been familiar with. He was obviously not alive. His spirit, soul, elan vital--whatever it's called--was no longer there.

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