The call came this morning. My uncle had moved from a semi-comatose state to a complete coma. The hospice nurse, knowing my mother's wish to be with him when he died, suggested she may want to come over as soon as she could. At one point during the day he shuddered a moment and then stopped breathing. The aide grabbed my mom's arm and told her this was it. But as soon as he had stopped breathing he started again.
During the afternoon I felt like I ought to go over. Yet I didn't. I had the three year old with me and very much did not want him around to see his uncle in the state he currently existed. When I last saw my uncle on Christmas Eve his skin was grey and sunken. I knew even if there was no change from that day, the sight of him would be more than a child ought to have to handle.
Instead we bought my mom flowers and a small balloon. Logan and I dropped it off at the house. My dad had just left to join my mother at the nursing home. My brother let us in. We chatted a moment and then left. I called my brother hours later to see if there was any news - there was none.
My mother called as I was making dinner. I learned then about the apnea - at least that's what they had called it. My cousin was there, she told me. The cousin my grandmother and uncle had spent all my years filling our heads with stories about. Her and her family. Stories that kept us not wanting to be part of their lives. Apparently the experience was mutual. My mother and my cousin spent the day talking to each other over my uncle's body. Someone told us recently that a person can hear for about 15-seconds after the heart stops beating. It seemed almost poetic that they'd have this conversation over his prone body - him unable to deny it or defend it. They learned that the wall built up over the years was a wall of lies and they knocked it down. I have a new cousin tonight.
I was cleaning up from dinner when the urge to go be there hit me hard. I asked my husband "Should I go?"
He answered the way I knew he would - "I can't tell you that. If you decide to that's fine with me. I'm here with the kids, just go and don't worry about us. If you decide not to, that's fine too. You need to decide."
I decided to go. I called my brother. He does not handle death well at all. He does not handle illness well at all. He's a tough guy on the outside that crumbles when pushed. I told him no one expected him to go. He didn't have to, but if he wanted to, I was leaving now. He told me he'd meet me over there.
When I got up to my uncle's room no one was there but him and his roommate. I was startled to see this dying man replacing the uncle I had remembered. We never had one of those grand adoring relationships, yet he was in my life from the start and he was there for all the 'big' moments. He was apart of my world even if he wasn't always a nice part of it. I loved him in spite of his issues, because they were, after all his issues.
He had already begun to shrink when I saw him last week. He was always a big man - tall and thick. When he was heavy he wore the excess weight in front of him all in his stomach. When the two brain tumors began to grow again last year it wasn't long before it started to effect him physically. In March he fell - signs that he was losing use of his left side. He'd been moved from his independent life in his own small home to an apartment in an independent living facility near us. He needed a wheel chair for long strolls and a walker for short ones. By the May he was in the nursing home. Full time in a wheel chair with no use of his left side. At the time they did not expect him to live past May.
Last week his skin was grey. The bones in his face were starting to be noticeable. He couldn't focus his eyes on you when you spoke to him. He seemed to stare at you and yet past you all at once. He could barely talk. You had to lean in close to hear him and his response often came minutes after you first asked him a question. Tonight the bed seemed to swallow him. He'd been without food or water for three days yet it looked like it'd been so much longer. His eyes were glazed over and he seemed to stare up above him. His mouth hung open. He would sometimes shudder when he inhaled.
I walked out of his room and called my mother on her cell phone. "Where are you?" I asked her.
"Where are you?" she said. I told her. She told me where to find her. I called my brother moments later and met him at the elevator to show him to our semi-private sitting area in the back of the nursing home. We sat with my cousin. She apologized for some of her past behaviors - sort of blocking me from my grandmother when we all visited her years ago her last week of life. Apparently some of the stories my grandmother and uncle told of me to her were outrageously frightening. My cousin apologized for believing those things. I told her it was ok. I told her there was no apology needed but that I appreciated her need to do so. I told her it was ok. We were ok. We could move beyond that now.
A priest appeared - it's a rather long, somewhere amusing story about the various clergy types that meandered through our day, but I'm already rambling so I'll not share it here now. He inquired about my uncle. He asked if he needed last rites. No, we told him, we're not Catholic. He's not Catholic. But he could use prayers if you're willing.
My mother, my brother, the priest and I returned to my uncle's room. There was a new aide in there with him. She looked up sadly, her eyes full of sympathy. He'd stopped breathing again and then started up again. Same as before, only this time his eyes were no longer moving. It was time. I went back to tell my cousin and my father.
My cousin and mother stood on either side of the bed rubbing my uncle's shoulders and head. I stood next to my mother, one hand on her back, one hand holding my uncle's. It was already cold although he was still breathing. We urged him to let go, to move on. We told him it was ok. It was time. He shuddered. He inhaled sharply. He did nothing for a moment. He shuddered again with another labored breathe. And then nothing.
My cousin felt his chest - she could no longer feel a heart beat. My mom checked for a pulse. Nothing. They called for a nurse to confirm it. Which she did - he was gone.
We spent time together waiting for the funeral home to retrieve the body. After those first moments the tears dried up. It wasn't sad. This was for better for him. He wasn't suffering. He wasn't feeling angry or betrayed. He was at peace and so were we.
His passing has left me with a few things. First I gained a new family member in the one that had been pushed out of our world for so long. I could be angry at him and my grandmother for the things they said about my family and my cousin - but I'm not. That's their issue. It's their's to own and to answer for somehow, somewhere. I can elect to let it eat away at me and fill me with the bitterness they apparently had, or I can decide to bury it with them and start over. I chose to bury it.
Second is a keen awareness of what I wish for in the years that lie ahead. Clearly dying is something we'll all do. I'm not getting out of it. The question is merely when, not if. If you have faith and believe in some sort of afterlife, as I do, then death is merely a passing from one world to another - a better. After this evening, I think that given the choice, I'd like to pass surrounded by people who love me as they cheer me on. I like to think that when we die there's someone or several waiting to greet us and guide us to whatever our idea of heaven is. How wonderful to have one group waiting to welcome us as the other urges us forward. I want to be celebrated not mourned.
Third, I face the task of telling my three year-old tomorrow. This is what is hard for me. This is what makes me cry tonight. Someone suggested ignoring it and letting it gloss over. But that won't work. When Logan lists his family - even knowing he's got aunt and uncles all over the place - he lists his immediate family, my parents, my brother....and my uncle. That's it. He asks about visiting him. He draws him pictures. I can't lie to him and pretend he's still there.
Others have suggested going with the "Well he moved" option. It's another I'm not comfortable with. Logan knows my uncle was very ill. No one had to tell him - he would visit him in the nursing home up until about a month ago. He liked to help push the wheel chair. He knows this illness was serious.
One day out of what seemed to be no where Logan asked me if my uncle was going to die. I was honest with him - Yes, he is, but not today. We talked some. I explained that my uncle was very sick, so sick the doctor couldn't make him better any more.
Last week Logan asked me if he could go with us on Christmas Eve. I wasn't willing to take him to see my uncle the way he'd slipped at that point. But I wasn't going to say all that then.
"Well honey," I said instead, "Remember Uncle M is very, very sick. And you're sick now too. Remember you just go more doctor medicine. We don't want to make Uncle M any sicker than he already is. We don't want him to catch your cold, ok? I think it's best if you stay home with Daddy."
He was quiet for a few moments and then he said "Mommy, Uncle M hurts a lot." I had to fight back tears. How incredibly perceptive of my little man. I just nodded. He agreed staying home was best.
So I can't fib to him. He knows it's coming. He knows any white lie is a lie. Yet I cry just thinking of the pain I'm about to cause him by being honest even in an age appropriate way. I just pray I'm strong enough to help him through this.