Two years ago today, my stepfather died. He was 91 years old. He married my mom in 1991 after my dad and his wife died of similar cancers. He was the only grandfather my two sons and most of their cousins will ever remember.
I woke before 5:00 that morning. I had an appointment for a tech to come from our cable company between 8 and 10:00. I had waited two weeks for that appointment. Still, to wait till after the appointment to arrive at the hospital, where Vern had been since a massive hemorrhagic stroke just five days prior, felt “too late”. So I cancelled the appointment and left the house before dawn.
Vern’s breathing had changed the day before. There had been a code. Not a Code Blue, because he didn’t want that, or any desperate measures, but the equivalent of it for patients like him. The Rapid Response Team decided to add a ventilator to ease his significantly labored breathing.
I was at the hospital before daybreak. My mom had slept in the chair in Vern’s room, and was awake. We sat talking. Chatting. Easy talk, despite the gravity of his condition. I made a coffee run.
Around 9:00, they asked us to leave the room so they could give his morning bed bath. We went to the lobby, where Mom recognized a chaplain who had visited Vern’s room earlier in the week, and struck up a conversation with him. I think she needed the break from the reality in Vern’s room on the sixth floor, but I felt the need to interrupt their discussion for us to get back to him.
I’m so glad I did. When we opened his door, the nurses were gone. I looked first to his breathing. I had been fixated on it all week, and immediately saw it had changed again in the 15 minutes we were gone. No longer labored and rapid, as it had been for 18 hours or so. Now shallow and slow. I alerted my mother, who hadn’t yet noticed, and she hurried to his side. She lifted his left hand and held it between hers. I sat opposite on the bed, one hand on his arm, the other on my mom’s.
Mom pushed the call button for his nurse, who came within seconds. She checked his vitals and the machines, her voice full of compassion as she asked if we’d like her to remove the ventilator mask and turn off the machine. She didn’t need to say more for us to know the machine couldn’t help any longer. She was affirming what we already knew. We nodded, and he was freed of the mask.
I am glad we made that decision. It was Vern’s face again, Just Vern, without that big mask.
With the hum of the machine off, the room was quiet again. Peaceful.
Less than a minute later … there came a lengthened pause between the breaths. Just two more spaced, slow, shallow breaths …
Then no more.
So easy. So peaceful.
To fully understand what this meant to me to be there:
I was in the kitchen when my father passed in my parents’ living room 29 years prior. As was my mom. We were eating a frozen pizza, because meals still had to happen. It had been days of “near the end”. Hospice had educated us along the way. We knew what to expect. But we also knew there was no way to predict the final moment.
And so we left his side, where I had been wiping his brow with a cool wet cloth, to grab a quick meal in the kitchen.
Putting us in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My dad was alone in the living room when he passed. Maybe it was for the best for Mom, I don’t know; she’s never spoken of it with regret. But I’ve been filled with regret about that timing since 1989.
Tortured by bad timing.
I had wanted to be holding his hand when he passed. I wanted for him to feel the weight of his loved ones on the edge of his bed. My brother said Dad wouldn’t have wanted that; he would have wanted to spare us the pain of his last breath. Maybe my brother was right.
But I wanted to be there.
Just a week before my stepfather passed, my godmother, my dear aunt, passed. I was there that day, kept in the loop by her husband and my cousins, who had been told by the nursing home staff that she was in her final days.
I wanted to be there. I would make up for my failure of not being there for my dad.
A worker from Hospice came in and out all that morning. My aunt’s second husband was there, as he was every day since my aunt’s stroke months before. Both were widowers, just like my mom and step-dad when they married. The Hospice worker encouraged Jim and I to take a break, to go for lunch. She said it could be a full day away, maybe two, nobody knew.
And so he went for lunch, and I took a walk. A long walk.
I was less than half a block from returning to my aunt’s nursing home when Jim called. My aunt was gone and I was a mere two minutes away.
In the wrong place at the wrong time, again.
Once again, I was tortured with regret. If only I’d stayed. If only I’d hurried back. If only …
The morning of my aunt’s visitation, Vern had the stroke. So two years ago today, a week after my aunt died, on the morning that would be my stepfather’s last …
The odds of being in the wrong place at the wrong time were high: If I’d waited till after 10, after the Mediacom tech left. If I’d patiently allowed Mom to have an extended conversation with the chaplain in the lobby. If we’d been just outside the door even; if the nurses had taken longer attending to him.
This time I was there. Physically there. Vern could feel the weight of our bodies seated next to him, the touch of our hands on his, as he passed.
My regret is gone; the 29-year torture has ceased.
My Mom asked me that morning of witnessing Vern’s death, and many times since, “When did you get so strong?”
Because I didn’t cry.
Not there on the edge of Vern’s bed. Not since. I’m not certain why, but I think witnessing Vern’s passing did something to my outlook on life and death.
Death is not terrible. Not when a person has lived a long, full, mostly healthy, mostly happy life. Maybe not when anyone dies. Not when heaven is waiting. Not when loved ones there are waiting.
Jim told my aunt to go on there, that my uncle, her first husband, was there waiting for her. He would be fine, he wanted Aunt Pat to go be with Uncle Elden. He wanted her to go ahead and see her parents again. He would see her … later.
Mom told me she had a talk with Vern in the night before he passed. She told him to go ahead … to reunite with his first wife, Verla, and his brothers and parents and friends. She would see him … later.
Because God promises and makes possible an everlasting life, I know now that death is natural. Death is a passing of the body. The story is not over, just a transference of the soul from here to there. It is a transcendency.
Death is … moving up.