The strange thing about waiting for death is how hard you try not to wait for it.
We sat around my niece’s hospital room and talked of inconsequential things while the television went from picture to picture above our heads. Always in the background was my niece’s difficult breathing to which we listened so intently while pretending not to listen at all. It reminded me strongly of my younger sister and I sitting in our father’s hospital room, listening to that same rough intake and wet exhalation as we talked in murmurs and anticipated silence.
From time to time, one of my family would leave the room for the hospital parking lot, there to smoke a cigarette and think of who-knows-what. We all knew that our lives would be changed by this event, yet we didn’t speak of what we thought those changes might be. Instead, we sat in our chairs and waited as though we were strangers waiting for a bus.
Anticipating change, fearing it, but longing for it, too. Impatient to be released from uncertainty into a place where formalized action would be required: the body – no longer my niece – to be taken away from the hospital room, arrangements for it to be retrieved again, burnt by strangers, returned in a plastic bag inside of a box. And life to continue in whatever way it could.
My niece had gone into the hospital, talking to her brother, telling him that we were not to linger over her, not to suffer on her behalf. And it was useless to know that. We could no more follow that instruction than we could hold back her death. The result was that we tried to speak lightly rather than give voice to the pain. We suffered silently and felt guilty for suffering at all.
We were all at a loss, sad and fearful of our own mortality as it was embodied by her. No one of us would be the first to break her admonition against overt grief, so we spent her last hours stoic and practical, trying to make one another laugh, and listening to my niece breathing as no one should breathe.
Like my niece and my father, my husband died over a period of months. Each trip to the hospital gave rise to the question, would this be the last time? No death, however expected, ends up being anything but unexpected. My husband’s death was as unpredictable as himself. His doctors had expected him to die months ago. He developed a blood infection, and the doctors on this particular visit had not expected him to live through the next two days. I had obediently notified his sisters, but I was not so sure; I had seen him do the near-impossible before. I warned his doctors that he might fool them, and they were very surprised when he did.
We all felt lightheaded and amazed that this man should be sitting up in bed, complaining as always about the hospital food and wanting to go home. His family left and went back to their lives – it would not happen this time. His doctors waited for his readings to return to baseline and signed orders to move him to a transitional part of the hospital in a day or so.
A year before, when I was told he had developed liver cancer, I went to work. Later, in the middle of the day, I cried in a co-worker’s arms because I knew it was a death sentence. But as humans, we live on hope. Tolstoy and other people smarter than I say that it is faith that keeps us going – faith that we will somehow make it through our trials and find continued joy in living. But I think it is hope. We can expect the worst, but we hope it will not come. Or we hope it will come later. Or if it comes, we hope it will not be too much for us to bear. I knew that particular day that he would die of the disease, but I hoped I was wrong.
I was not. He had beaten the blood infection, but not the cancer.
That last day, I spent lunch with him. He had had a shower and a shave and expected the move to the transitional ward at any time. He ate his pudding and kept one eye on the television as he talked with me. We might as well have been at home, having dinner on trays. I wondered at the ordinariness of it. Inside him, cells were fighting and losing against the cancer, slowly ceding territory with no chance of regrouping. Yet, he ate the chocolate pudding and seemed to savor it and rather than contemplating any large questions about god or what happens after death, he contemplated the choices on a game show.
I said, “Does it bother you to think you might not come home?”
He shrugged, a so familiar gesture. “I have no control over it; so why worry about it?”
A mere four hours later, I would be holding what was left of him in my arms, listening to that breathing – the same breathing I had heard when my father died, the same I would hear in my niece’s hospital room. At that moment I felt as though he might have waited for me, though how that could be possible, I did not know. He was unconscious and limp and yet I found holding his weight easy. My rational brain was wondering what should I do? I could think of nothing except to continue holding him while thoughts swirled in my head like bits of flotsam in a fog, disconnected and only half-realized.
It occurred to me that if he had been waiting for me, then I had a responsibility to let him know that it was alright to go. And so I whispered to him that it was fine, that I would miss him, but that his dad was waiting for him. Then I laughed and told him it was his big chance to finally meet John Lennon.
A last breath sighed out of him.
I had tried not to wait for this death and I was successful, I think. Successful enough that it came as a total surprise, just as my father’s had been and just as my niece’s last breath would be. We try not to wait for death to happen, but we do, and yet we are always surprised.
Fortunately, the dead do not see our astonishment.