B has been NPO (no nutrition by mouth or any other means) for 11 days. Ghandi managed a 21 day hunger strike on two glasses of water, but Ghandi did not have a massively metastasised cancer, nor had he experienced intensive radiation and chemo therapies. Eleven days of survival was far in excess of the usual seven the family had been informed to expect when B entered the facility. B continued to breathe regularly, receive his injections of morphine and antihistamine, and be repositioned regularly. His day was otherwise uneventful. The intervals of communication of the previous day were not repeated and may be the last we will enjoy since there were none this day.
Members of the family came and went throughout the day with the greatest concentration present after 4 PM. The sporting events continued to unfold on the TV. At one point, all the family present gathered around a computer screen to watch the live feed of a high school soccer game in which his grandson was playing. All of us were cheering his team on and watching his play, except B of course. He was not forgotten. One or another of us checked on him regularly, but his condition remained stable, save his body temperature. Clearly some minor infection had set in and whatever remained of his disease defence mechanisms were at work. No antibiotics were in order for my friend.
The other feature of this experience not yet mentioned was the abundance of food availble for all to eat. The hospice provided refrigeration in another location so that families could bring and store food on site. The location was some sort of lounge with a partial kitchen, tables and chairs to eat at, and a gathering place for family members who wanted to take a break from staying in the suites with their loved ones. Once again, the normalcy of the place, the persistent upbeat music in the halls and the general good spirits of all in attendance (B’s family is the only one I can account for) grated against the reality that was this a place of dying.
The day progressed in the same manner until about 10 PM when we decided to leave for the evening. The only problem was that there was a procession in progress. At this hospice, the clients entered and exited through the same door. There was no back door for hearses to pull up to for the deceased to be spirited away without notice. At this hospice, there was a regular procession to follow the body out the front door to the hearse. This was a very solemn affair with the now mourning family very much in the fore. This was a place of dying with dignity in the company of loved ones where death was not a something to be hidden or to hide from. We decided to stay out of the way in respect for the family of the hour. The whole affair took about 30 minutes before we could leave for the evening. Staff told me privately that there were three such processions over the last weekend and it was a rough time for them all. These staff were feeling humans capable of working under very unique conditions.
This scenario got me thinking about my previous experiences with death and the dying. The first death I recall was that of a grandmother who had pancreatic cancer. She died about 63 years ago (I was just 6) and she was only in her fifties. My only recollection of her death was when my father quietly announced that I no longer had a grandmother. That was it, nothing more. Perhaps it was the way of the times, but clearly I was being sheltered from the experience. The next death was that of a patient from whom I was taking a blood sample. I worked as a night lab technician (now in university) at a small urban hospital; taking morning blood samples was one of my regular duties. In this instance, while taking my sample the blood just stopped flowing and that was it. I checked the pulse. I called the duty nurse to the bedside to confirm my observation and left the room. I felt nothing, because a very sick elderly person with whom I had no association had died in the course of events. I also observed several autopsies while working at this hospital. Death was death. Should I have felt something for the old women or for the subjects of the autopsies?
The next several events involved family members. A cousin had died at the age of fifty from a heart attack, but he was a very heavy smoker and also had lung cancer. My paternal grandfather died several weeks after I visited him in a nursing home. I attended his funeral. My maternal grandfather died in the early 1970’s. I was unable to see him prior to his death or to attend his funeral as I was now in exile from the United States due to the Viet Nam situation. I was very close to this man and it hurt me to be excluded from those events.
My father died at the age of 63 from a third and finally fatal heart attack. Fortunately, I was again able to travel to the USA and had visited him just a few days before he died. I was not there at the moment of death. I was able to fully participate in his funeral and the other religious rites associated with his death. My mother passed away some thirty years later from lung cancer. I was fortunate again to be able to spend several days with her just before her death. She was the first loved one that was under a palliative care regime, albeit not in a hospice. Instead, she was at my brother’s home, but received all the appropriate care from individuals that came and went as needed. I had exhausted my leave of absence from my teaching position and had to return, but my children came to stay and visit with here the next day. They too had ample time to sit an talk with her for the next day and a half, but she expired at that time. It is the closest I got to a hospice experience. We all attended her funeral. Both she and my father were fully communicative, alert and with-it when I was with them.
The lose of a parent is certainly a sad event and I was affected by each of their deaths, but nothing I had experienced was equal to this time spent with B and his immediate family. He was so clearly debilitated by both disease and cancer therapy, and his hold on life was so tenuous, that the affect on my was greater than I expected from precious experiences. I have no anticipation of an afterlife, but these people were religious to a degree to which I could not relate. They were counting on it. I twice blacked out in my life; once from the effect of something called “divers reflex, and once from the fall resulting in being knocked unconscious. On both occasions, I knew that if I had not regained consciousness that would have been it. There was absolutely nothing on the other side of a blackout, the religious beliefs of others notwithstanding.
Death could not be excluded from beneath my dome of heaven for it is just pat of the human condition. My conclusion from all these experiences is that life is life and death is death, and never the twain shall meet. B had his own procession the very next day. I’ll write about that in the next post.
Until then . . . L
- 5 Important Lessons About Life I Learned From Death (funeralone.com)
- Until Death Do Us Part (psychologytoday.com)
- National Hospice Month (highpointhealthsystem.wordpress.com)