Today I was vacuuming. To the point where I needed some podcast time. It was that kind of vacuuming. Spring cleaning, get the grime out vacuuming. A perfect time to escape into storytelling. One of my favorites is This American Life. Today I chose episode 523: Death and Taxes. For the latter, it’s that time of year. Mine are done. A huge relief. The former, well…
This was one of those episodes that moved me to the point of having to write about it. #sorrynotsorry As I sit here I’m not quite sure how this is going to come out. In previous posts I’ve briefly mentioned my late father-in-law’s passing. However, up until now I have not delved further than that. A mere mention. A part of a narrative to bridge the story to the other side. After five and a half years I’m ready to share the whole story with you.
Act 2 of the podcast opens with the story of a woman’s first real journey in witnessing death as she recalled the passage of her step father. For her this was the first time she had an real proximity to the process of death. The witnessing of death. The visceral reality of death. For myself the passage of my late father-in-law was also the same. I was 3 when my Grandpop died, 13 when my Poppy died, and 23 when my Granny passed. I was not physically present for any of their deaths. I only experienced their deaths through the stories told by the people who were there.
Until this point I had never done well when someone is in hospital. How do I act? How do I not seem awkward when everything about their condition sucks? That was before I knew how to hold space for someone in their darkest hour. Looking back I realize that I was I was focused on myself instead of the person I was supposed to be supporting.
In October of 2016 Irwin, my late FIL, went into the hospital with graft v host disease. He had received a bone marrow transplant a few months prior and his body was rejecting the transplant. At the time everyone around him believed that he would be in the hospital to receive treatment for the graft v host and then come home. My husband (at the time) and I were the only ones who saw the writing on wall pretty early. We knew it but couldn’t speak it. It was several months of intermittent spells in the ICU. After a few weeks my husband developed a pattern of visiting him either every day or every other day. He’d bring his laptop and work remotely. We had a 2 year old at the time. I was not in a space where I could find stability in his now even more pronounced absence.
Two years into mothering I was still in the depths of postpartum depression & anxiety. Any changes to our routine had the potential put me over the edge. I was a storm of stress, isolation, exhaustion, and unrealistic expectation around the support or lack thereof that I would receive from my husband.
He suggested we bring our daughter up to the hospital so that her Nana could have a visit with her as a break from the monotony and anguish of watching the person she loves most fight for his life. I agreed but with resentment and stress. We did the visit. My husband thought it went well. I immediately shot him down with “yeah we’re not doing that again” pretty quickly. I was not the kind person I should have been. I feel pretty terrible about that.
By Thanksgiving it was clear that he wasn’t coming out anytime soon. That was a day where I prepped the meal alone having sent our daughter up to her Grandmother’s for the day. A day where I tried to pretend everything was fine through the bitter taste of a mentally ill mother’s mouth. My husband’s father was dying, my husband was both physically and emotionally absent, my daughter was with her grandmother so I could actually prepare a huge meal for everyone alone. It was awful.
By New Year’s we came to understand that it was going to end sooner rather than later. But not by Irwin going home alive. We reached the middle of the month, the 11th actually. People had flown in. His parents, now in their late 80s had been holding down the family morale since the start of this journey in the fall. Right up until that last weekend his 89 year old father spoke the words “where there is life, there is hope.” Of course, I said to myself, this man lost family in the holocaust. I get it. His twin sisters flew in from Colorado. His other son, the one who gave him bone marrow, came up from Boston with his wife.
We went to the hospital on Friday the 11th knowing we would be there all day, and we were. It was that afternoon that the palliative care doctor broke the news to us all that there where no more options. That we, and in reality, Irwin, had arrived at the last station. After the naked truth settled in the conversation began to shift to “next steps.” We were informed that from here on out it’s about drug cocktails, the presence of loved ones, and comfort. Before we went home that night I had the opportunity to massage his feet and ankles. I can stand in the truth of the following statement: offering body work to a dying man has been one of the greatest honors of my life. Once we had settled on a plan my husband and I headed home to scoop up our child from her Grandma’s. We all spent the night in as much normalcy as we could. The next morning we returned to the hospital after dropping our daughter back off with her Grandma. We would not return until the following day.
Driving to the hospital the next morning I had a moment of rage while ruminating on the barbaric truth that as a dog owner I could have my animal put to sleep to ease his suffering, but as a human I can’t help a loved one die with dignity with the help of fast acting drugs. It was more than unfair. It was cruel.
We arrived at the hospital to give some relief to his wife. After she left, Irwin was still conscious enough that he was actively trying to die. My husband and I were on either side of him, playing music we thought he’d like. Smiling at him. Loving him. Coaching him towards death. He’d say “ok, let’s do this. Ok, I’m ready.” Holding our hands the whole time. He’d take a breathe. Hold it. Succumb to his body needing oxygen. Inhale. Exhale. Focus. Then start the whole thing again. Yes, we replied. You’re ready, we responded. You’ve got this, we lied. It was the only thing we could do. Like a doula supporting a mother as she bears down. The soul inside her making the slow decent towards earth. Millimeter by millimeter. Breath held by breath held. Then released. Again. And again. And again. But instead of descending he was ascending with us as witnesses.
Eventually he calmed. The cocktail finally kicking in. Eyes closed. Chest rising and falling. Somewhere in that magical place between sleep and awake. A place unreachable for those who stay behind. Slowly, various family members began to drift away. Each of his family having had a moment with him before he slipped into unconsciousness. Saying goodbye in whatever way they knew how. How his 89 year old mother and father managed to find the courage to do that I will never understand. That day they did the unthinkable.
Without words my husband and I, along with Irwin’s wife, understood that the three of us would be the ones to help him pass. That we would not leave until this was complete. That we were his sentinels. From that point on the three of us took turns being present with him while we waited. We rotated sleeping shifts. Going for food when we needed to. That night was one of the longest of my life. I had pulled a few all nighters in college but not many. Maybe only 2 and one of them for a global art event. There is something that happens in a hospital at 1 am. 2 am. 3 am. You feel like you’re the only person awake. Like time is still. Like you, this room, and its contents are the only things that exist. It’s a surreal experience. One that I hope not to repeat anytime soon.
At around 3 am I went to the waiting room to get some sleep. One of us was awake and able to stay with him. I can’t remember who though. I came back around 6. Somewhat rested but mostly awake from the constant feed of adrenaline of waiting for the worst part. During the night his breathing shifted from peaceful to labored. The three of us checked in with each other. I needed food. My husband and Irwin’s wife needed sleep. She would leave to go to a friend’s house nearby while he took the cot in the room. I went downstairs to the cafeteria. It was about 6:30 am. Blueberry pancakes. Maple syrup. The pancakes were pretty dry, even with the maple syrup. I came back up around 7. I immediately noticed that the room had a new stillness to it. I woke my husband up once I realized why. He wasn’t sure if his father was still alive or not. I walked over to the bed. I placed my hand on his chest. Nothing. No movement. No heartbeat. He was an empty vessel.
The pause of someone’s face. The shift from disbelief to understanding. The grimmace. The moan. The tears. In the 11 years that we had been together up to that point, this is the first time I saw him cry.
We called his wife. She was there in minutes. A wife’s release of finality flooding the room. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen it more beautifully done. In her I saw all the women who have lost husbands. All of the hands held in while in that place of in between. I heard every wife through history who’s husband came home on a cart after a battle. Or an accident. Or a killing. I felt her relief in being done. I felt her rage at being left behind. I felt her pain in the loss of her greatest love. We stepped out for a little while to make the necessary phone calls to family. We stayed with her through those first decisions. Do you want to be here while the nurses prepare him? What do you want to do with his body? Do you want any gold fillings to be removed before cremation? How do you want to receive his remains? I filled out the form for her because she just couldn’t do it. We gathered our things. We went home. Home to our child who at two and a half had no real concept of death up until that point. Home to a now fatherless son. Home to a Grandma who had just lost the father to her children. Home to a new us.
When people gather to mourn the loss of a loved one it is a mixed blessing of joy and grief. Funerals and weddings. These occasions are the two most prominent reasons why family gathers together. Unless you’re super on top of your game to organize family reunions this is pretty much when you see each other. Weddings and funerals. And there is never enough time. Never. Then we ask ourselves why do we only do this at weddings or funerals? Why don’t we just gather to gather? Gather to celebrate life? Gather to celebrate our lineage? Gather to celebrate the fact that we are connected through this really cool thing called DNA? Like I said before, unless you’re on top of your game, weddings and funerals is what you get.
I’m struggling to wrap this up. There is one more thing I want to share with you. I haven’t shared this with anyone before now. So why am I sharing it now? Maybe it will bring you some sense of direction like it did for me. Maybe it won’t, and that’s ok. But it is something that I’m taking pretty seriously. During his last few hours of consciousness Irwin brought us into his room one at a time. When it was my turn I walked down the hallway with a heavy sense of nervousness. Unsure how to receive what he would say. Somehow in the minute that it took to reach his room I pulled myself together enough to show up in a way that was different. A way that was more, receptive. A way that was, well for lack of a better analogy more like him. One of his greatest attributes was his ability to listen without judgment.
I entered the room and went to his bedside. He looked at me with his deeply knowing brown eyes. His voice raspy from dehydration and exhaustion. I could tell that this last push for connection with his loved ones was taxing. That this mattered to him. And he needed to do it. I can’t remember all the words. Mostly I remember the feeling of just trying to be present. I do remember this though. He said that he’d watched me bounce around from one thing to another over the course of my relationship with his son. That I’ve lacked direction. He said that he’d like me to focus on one thing. To find my course and stick with it. To find the one thing that I wanted to do and make that my purpose because in finding that I will find peace. I agreed to this sacred contract with a dying man. A man I had some to see as a sage of wisdom over the ten years that I had known him. This is a contract that 5 years later I am still honoring and intend to do so for the rest of my days. By August of that year I had re-opened my practice after having stepped away from massage following the birth of my daughter. I mistakenly thought that in becoming a mother I had nothing to offer anyone else. For two years that was the truth. I was so overwhelmed with new motherhood that I could not support anyone else. I was so empty and yet filled at the same time. The decision to return to my practice has welcomed in experiences that I could not have previously imagined. A level of self exploration, reflection, and expansion that has brought me to new places physically and spiritually. In so many ways it brought me to my work with the Hand to Heart Project which is the most important work of my life.
In the journey back to my purpose at Irwin’s urging I have come to understand that while my choice of profession is a huge part of me I am more than just a healing practitioner. First, and foremost, I am a human. Both flawed and divine. It is both of these elements that I give myself grace for not getting it perfect. Because how can I? How can any of us? What I have come to understand in my sacred contract is that as long as I strive to give every single human I come into contact with the level of compassion, love, and presence that was demanded of me in those last 72 hours of Irwin’s life I am doing a decent job. And that is enough.
[unsplash image credit: Jon Tyson]