The Last Breath
No steak for almost three months now... The memory of Saylers's rich comforting meals taunted him. My 92 year-old grandfather patiently anticipated a much needed bridge to repair his two front teeth. While a final dentist appointment still lingered one week away.
Distractions were easy, today he cleaned the gutters; climbing upon the roof, no harness, no safety net, nothing but good balance and stable footing. This was the man we knew; endless work, genuine selfless love.
Finishing yet another project, he climbed into bed, retiring for the night.
She's known him longer than I've been alive, bringing him much joy; his wife of nearly a decade woke to a strange sound, only to discover a blood soaked pillow. My grandfather laid on his side, minimally responsive. The paramedics were not far away.
Rushed into the hospital, the CT scan illustrated a somber outcome: a 3cm by 3cm by 4.5cm pocket of blood perched just above his brain stem, shrouded deep within the folds of his brain. Iron-rich blood flooded throughout.
Labeling it a cerebral hemorrhage, doctors and specialists gave him hours to live. There was nothing they could do.
Such a midline shift paralyzed his left side. He woke, acknowledging his wife by name, he used a still functioning right hand to lovingly caress her face. As hours became days, family and friends rushed to his side, and he shrugged-off a dismal prognosis.
Years ago, the force which wedged our family apart had faded into an eagerly-forgotten past. As we came to his side, we found common ground; piercing decades of unwanted silence. Grandchildren, cousins, and siblings hugged and bonded over happy memories. Awkwardness no longer mattered, we shattered unjustified stereotypes. Two sisters embraced for the first time in decades.
Friends, neighbors, and loved ones visited, laughed, cried, and often with few words, profusely expounded an unconditional love and forgiveness he was so well known for. At times, some desperately read more cure than comfort into the following days. Some struggled against a doctor eager to minimize comfort while hastening a departure. We all wanted one more smile from him, one more hug, one more story.
Smiles & Tushes
The room was full of people...and right on cue, a nurse entered saying "It's time to turn him again." The room emptied, and as the door latched closed, you could hear a curtain scrape along its rails.
As the nurses cared for him...one loudly exclaimed; "Oh my gosh, he has the tush of a 20 year-old!"
The hallway suddenly burst into laughter. We were told he smiled.
Blue Eyes & Trumpets
As he would occasionally wake, yawn, and rub his eyes. During the most tender moments, he would open his eyes, looking around the room, and struggled to speak; "Ma...bu...aeh...bu..."
What was he saying? My Baby? Bye Bye? Was he bragging about his cute butt? We don't know, but we haven't stopped guessing.
After a while, his death rattle increasingly pierced a darkened room. Often holding someone's hand, he'd squeeze harder and harder. His breathing quickened, he struggled to hold on. Another doctor emerged, and proposed a remedy; wanting to give my grandfather a nose trumpet. Those present were strongly assured such a tool wouldn't prolong anything, it only served to ease his final journey.
Within a now calmed and quiet room, his love captured a final peaceful moment alone with him.
His 7th day began with a gentle nudge. Just a few hours prior I reluctantly left his side, to chase tasks that I so easily juggled before these past few days. Lacking sleep for days, I found I couldn't work. His oldest daughter found me lying on a soft bench one floor below, nudging me, she said "Sweetie, they're going to start a morphine drip soon."
We all knew what this meant; less potent painkillers no longer comforted him, his final moments were possibly minutes away. I thanked her for sharing, and promised my presence in just a moment. Closing my eyes to gather strength, my eyes snapped open to an adrenaline rush. My FitBit Charge HR says my pulse spiked to 102, as it taunted me with three missing hours. I had fallen asleep after she left.
My heart raced, and jumping up and down in the elevator didn't make it move any faster. It was 3am, I was dizzy. Focusing at the hallway's emergency exit sign, I dragged my legs though what felt like a pool of water...as I approached the room, my weak knees almost buckled under the last few steps.
Thinking to myself; Did I remember to grab my coat? Where's my ba...oh, it's on my shoulder...
A beautiful laminated sunset hung on the door before my face...his door opened slowly.
His oldest daughter was sitting alongside him, her weary eyes met mine. She was alone with him in the room, my cheeks burned as I returned her warmly contagious smile.
Just to her left, her father's chest quietly rose and fell.
"He's stable. They're just now getting his respirations down from 24 or 26." she said, shaking her head as-if to evict a memory of that struggle. "I think he's at 16 right now, he looks so peaceful.", as she said with a teary smile. Just over his right shoulder hung bags of saline and morphine, an IV pump modestly whirred in the background.
I asked where my cousin disappeared to. She reassured me; "The dogs had been locked in the house for two days, and he needed a shower. After cleaning up, he's going to take a nap and then head back down from the mountain." We then went over the list of who to contact, and one-by-one she reassured me that she'd already made the calls.
While waiting, my aunt and I shared more stories. It was clear that her son, my cousin, absolutely adored her father, his grandfather...and that he was painfully struggling with a terminal prognosis. We eventually sat in silence, lost in our own minds. After a while, a slight snore startled away the voices in my head; she had fallen asleep.
My aunt, cousin, and I had been together almost non-stop these past few days. We had found new common ground, and I dearly missed my cousin's presence. I worried if he'd return too late.
Eventually, my aunt relented from an uncomfortable chair, and retired onto a soft bench downstairs. My cousin walked in much sooner than anyone expected. My cheeks burned from a sudden broad smile, and with outstretched arms I bolted from the chair to welcome his timely return. Almost knocking him backwards from the hug.
Eventually the three of us wearily sat in my grandfather's room, we shared more stories.
I learned more about my grandfather's piloting skills, more details of his ability to unconditionally love and forgive (but never forget), and then emerged a story which marked a few significant life changes...
At the age of six, my grandfather was given a BB gun. Living in Springfield Oregon, in the 1930's, winter only left so many things to entertain a child with. My grandfather proceeded to visit his grade school, with the BB gun in hand, he shot out windows...every, single, window in his grade school. From that moment on, he worked his entire life. He helped his parents run Groce Grocery, he ran Groce Auto Wrecking, he worked, and through his two hands selflessly built and gave everything he could.
The Last Visit
My aunt and cousin struggled to stay awake. They tried to sleep in chairs alongside him. Eventually, they both trusted assurances I'd collect them when the moment approached, and so they retired to the downstairs benches for a desperately needed rest.
I sat alone with my grandfather for hours. Measuring his respiration rate (a primary pain indicator) about every 30 minutes, and reporting to the nurses when they asked. He rarely varied outside an 8-10 range; only once going up to 12, and another time dropping to 7. I distracted myself by searching the internet, to better understand the last stages of death. I stumbled across a work by George E Vaillant; What are the Secrets to a Happy Life. The work spoke of love, as an ultimate source of happiness, and arguments were supported using findings from the longest-running longitudinal study of human development in history. These works mirrored my grandfather's life so accurately and concisely, I couldn't believe it existed.
Then, the hospital chaplain visited. Ours was the first family she saw today, and I was the first member. She asked how everyone was doing, and she seemed especially concerned about my aunt and her youngest son. Within earshot of my grandfather, I explained that they've seemingly come to terms with his eventual passing. The chaplain blessed us, and went on her way. About 15 minutes later, my grandfather's 2nd doctor (the one responsible for his "trumpet") visited. I hadn't met her yet, as I was away when she first visited. I conveyed my grandfather's stats, and expressed concerns about the trumpet. She explained how it worked, and detailed the insertion process, while reassuring me that it was not an extraordinary effort to save him; it wouldn't prolong his life. The tool only served to ease his stress/strain while breathing, and it would help him pass more peacefully during his final moments. I underestimated these reassurances.
I returned to reading, while checking respirations yet again. It was now about 11:30am, and a high school friend of my grandfather poked his head into the room. I hastily finished counting-out 7 breaths, not thinking anything of it, I stood up and made an excuse to give my grandfather and his friend time alone. A hospital volunteer visited me while I lurked three doors down; she was leaving for the day, and wanted to thank me for the long talk we had hours ago, while expressing how clearly my grandfather was loved by so many.
My grandfather's friend waved me back into the room.
We talked, laughed, and exchanged a few stories. His friend learned of my grandfather's BB gun mischief, I learned that they were the only two surviving men of their high school class. The clock struck 11:55am, my phone quietly alerted me to a message - not wanting to interrupt the conversation, I dismissed it without checking.
Suddenly, a very quiet gurgling sound came from my grandfather's general direction.
His friend continued talking, but I wasn't listening. I had glanced at the clock, and outstretched fingers hidden in my pocket counted out my grandfather's odd sounding respirations 1...2...3...4, at this point a full minute had passed. I quickly excused myself, and while running to the nurse station I pulled my phone from my pocket, and hit my aunt's autodial entry. Explaining concerns to a nurse, they promised to visit shortly, as I said on the phone to his daughter "His respirations have dropped to 4, and he's making a unusual gurgling sound. You should think about heading up."
By this time, I was back in his room, with a nurse on my heels. His friend didn't seem to understand what was going on, and I went to my grandfather's side; a nurse across the bed. I watched for his chest to rise...it never did. The nurse searched for a pulse, listened for a faint breath...but she didn't need to say a word, the tears welling in her eyes said everything.
I explained what had just happened to his friend. We were still stunned, with no visible response I commented "I'm so happy his wife reached you today." As he looked at me, confused, I explained; "My cousin was teasing earlier. Telling our grandfather that none of his friends came to visit, because he'd outlived them all. I'll bet he was just waiting to say goodbye to you." Laughter once again filled the room.
His daughter walked around the corner. As she entered the room, I tried to visually convey his passing, she was more distracted greeting her father's friend. After a brief hug and cheerful greeting, the room drew an eerie silence. His daughter looked around, closely at her father, and then at me "He's gone" I said. Her eyes, already welling-up with tears, shifted between her father, the nurse, and me. "Where's..." she said, just as her son entered the room...
For the next three hours, people came and went. His wife and her sister were already on the way, and arrived shortly after his passing, as did a close family friend. We visited, laughed, cried, and finally hugged each other longer and tighter than ever before.
- My grandfather was never alone, he passed gently and calmly in the company of a childhood friend of 75+ years.
- His friend was now the last surviving man from their high school class. Three women are also still around.
- That earlier TXT message on my phone was from his daughter downstairs; she had an odd feeling, and wanted to know how her father was.
- In front of the nurses station, I called his daughter at 12:04, and I was out of his room for barely two minutes.
My grandfather took advantage of mere distracted moments to sneak away. I'll bet he got a kick out of that trick too.