Yesterday I watched a man die. Right to his last breath.
I had never done that before and it was surreal. The man was my uncle, but in many ways he was like a second father to me. I grew up in his house much like a surrogate family.
My Uncle Vince was 84 and ready to die. A few days ago he lay there, obviously in pain and very uncomfortable, but even though his lungs were giving out, his heart kept beating. Conscious, frustrated and wide awake late in the night, he looked around at us and said, “I never thought the end would be like this…..why are you doing this to me?”
Yesterday was the family’s day of reckoning. Faced with very little they could do for him, they chose not to prolong the inevitable and allow him to pass quietly on his own. We all gathered around his bed watching his last laboured breaths. I could see his pulse under the skin of his neck. It beat steadily even when his breaths were few and far between. The doctor came in for what would be the last visit. He asked the family if they wanted to remove his air mask so he looked more like himself. They all agreed. I never liked the masks as they distorted his face and pushed his jaw too far back. Although his eyes were still swollen, and his mouth distorted by the struggled gasps, he looked much better with it off.
He laboured even more now to take a breath. There were many moments when we all thought it was the last one, only to have him take one more. This lasted for another hour, although it seemed much longer. I watched my aunt play with the furl of his eyebrows, which I’m sure was a comfort to him even in his unconscious state. Near the very end she would rub her hand around his face, playfully pinching his bottom lip forward, as if to see if she could annoy him. It didn’t work. His two oldest boys, on each side of the bed, consoled their dying father. One held his arm while the other rubbed his stubbly face saying, “It’s ok Dad, just let go.” It was a poignant moment to watch. These grown men, myself included, and an old man who once carried us all, too weak to stand on his own. I know all about the cycle of life, but this was so stark in my mind the whole time. As parents, we do all we can for our children: carry them through life, feed them, protect them, nurture them. Yet, at the very end of our time, it is they who carry us across the finish line, as we are too weak to take care of them let alone ourselves any longer. So, I looked down at my uncle, now laying lifeless on the bed, thankful of the many times he carried me and evermore thankful that I could help carry him home.
His final breath came about 3:15. His eyes were open, but the pulse on his neck was no longer there. The first to acknowledge this was his son, John, who had been quietly leaning over the bed with both hands resting on his fathers belly. He gently leaned over and gave his father a kiss, and pulled away weeping. His oldest son checked for a pulse, then gently gave him a kiss on his forehead where his hand had been gently rubbing. He passed his hands over his fathers eyes to close them. His wife and daughter began to weep loudly at the thought of this being the end. His youngest son, who had been standing at the foot of the bed, moved toward his dad and quietly kissed him knowing that his father’s pain was now over.
Uncle Vince had a strong heart, throughout his entire life and in his final days. Although he had been ready to move on, reassuring his wife to look after herself and let him go, his heart still marched forward. That truly is the beauty of the human spirit; one cannot extinguish it until it is ready to go out on its own.