Monday, October 16, 2006
TO GO SMILING
“I know how I want to die,” I felt my head visibly jerk and snap upward as my daughter’s words jolted me back from the silent drive. The road ahead, newly paved created the perfect backdrop for the yellows and reds of autumn. The statement seemed so misplaced. “I want to die smiling.”
“Hmm… I suppose that would be the best way.” I responded, more sure of navigating the road under me than the one my daughter was asking to journey.
“So if I ever was going to be hit by a car or shot, I plan to smile because if I’m going to die anyway, I want it to be smiling,” In the rear view mirror I saw her grin a straight line and nod which told me she was certain.
“Well, I sure hope you won’t be hit by a car or shot! I think I’d like to die peacefully. Maybe in my sleep.”
“Oh No! I would never want to die sleeping. People around would be shaking you and wondering if you were dead or not. I want it to be quick and fast so I won’t feel anything. Besides, sleeping wouldn’t be smiling.”
What to say? Is there a best way to leave this life? No good answer. No perfect scenario. No real choice. In spite of our wish to write our future story to include a comfortable ending, it is not ours to determine.
Instantly, time rolled back to October 31, 2004, the day Uncle Larry died. It was morning and I was folding towels, warm and “mountain breeze” fresh out of the dryer. “Hello, this is Branford Hills Health Care calling about Lawrence Gallagher.” Instant flip in my stomach as I grabbed for a pencil and paper. “Fever…infection…. hospital.” I was the contact person by default since my mom moved to North Carolina. Only the middle-man, I told myself. I called my mom to relay the names and numbers. She made direct contact and they spoke of the DNR on file.
He entered many family gatherings dressed as a character called “Crazy Guggenheimer” from a skit in a Jackie Gleason show singing a soppy Irish song. He wore brown and orange plaid slacks hiked up high around his belly, a gray flannel Fedora hat with the brim turned downward and a funny smile stretching wide across his face that stuck his chin out far. Uncle Crazy. He was always bubbling with warmth and an endless string of one-liners.
He took his place as #4 in a family of 10 children, he himself the only one to produce none of his own. Perhaps it was that fact that made him so lovable. There were no children day to day draining the father out of him and he greeted each one of his nieces and nephews as if we were his favorite.
He came from a family riveted with poverty. As en elder in the clan, he made it his business after leaving the nest to check in regularly with Mama, always slipping a fifty dollar bill into her needy hand. He was often the reason that my mother and the younger children knew Santa. Devoutly Catholic, he was charitable, faithful and rooted deeply in his church. He married the love of his life, a large, gruff woman who ruled with an iron fist. I feared Aunt Kay. Her white hair snugged her head in a roller comb out and her eyes small and dark. Her face wore disapproval and her voice flat and cold. They never seemed to fit but Uncle Larry loved her.
Years after Aunt Kay died from cancer; Uncle Larry began to replace her with the smooth hot burn of vodka. His home an hour away and my mom his closest living sibling made it hard for the family to know the consistency and intensity of his decline. A bad fall and then another, head injury; the vodka had taken charge. He bounced from hospital to nursing home and finally, landed in a competent long care facility in the town where my mom lived.
Visits to the home became awkward over the years. Uncle Larry’s reality inched slowly backward in time to where I was his sister and my children his nieces and nephews. Eventually, he forgot that he had ever married and stopped recognizing all of us. Occasional glimmers of him shone through, like the visit where four-year-old Cadence belted out the Star Spangled Banner and Uncle Larry fished in his pajama pants for a dollar to slip her; part of his trade mark. He made due with a sugar packet.
“I’ll leave North Carolina now,” my mom said.
“I should go to the hospital,” I told her, “I’ll call you from there.”
I should be mature enough to handle what I have been commissioned to do. I find myself still feeling like the child instead of the adult and I fear that I will be asked to sign something at the hospital. Do Not Resuscitate. No Extreme Measures. The family has decided…
I find Uncle Larry in the Emergency Room. Machines monitor his blood pressure and an oxygen mask sits on his face. I sit beside him, the stench of bowel and hospital air. No one speaks to me or even seems to notice I am there. Uncle Larry’s legs stick out from under the checkered gown, bones and white hair. I timidly reach out to rest my hand on his leg to tell him I am there. Cold. So Cold. I try to arrange the sheet to cover his legs. “He’s cold,” I say to the nurse who comes to write on his clipboard and I wonder why they seem not to notice the smell.
“We’ll be moving him upstairs soon.” She tells me and whisks away, white shoes squeaking like basketball sneakers. Thank God, I think because the smell is making it hard to swallow. The staff excuses me to the hallway as they prepare Uncle Larry to move to a room. I am told to follow. In the elevator, I wonder if the smell will ever leave my nostrils and stare at the numbers lit above the doorway. As we move off of the elevator, the smell moves with us and I realize it is coming from Uncle Larry. I wait in the hallway while the nurses clean him up and I talk to myself about being brave.
“You can go in,” I am told and I see Uncle Larry has blankets on his legs. I stick my hand out to feel his thin, soft skin. Warmer now. Better. The smell is gone. I see a plastic bag attached to a tube sticking out from under the blanket with dark brown liquid and perhaps blood. I look away quickly. Moments later a doctor enters, then another. I am asked to leave and suddenly there is much action. Scrubs in, scrubs out. All talking in the language of medicine. Confusion. “Why hasn’t this or that been done?” A short dark-haired, dark skinned doctor approaches me. Indian perhaps.
“Your father?” He asks
“My uncle,” I say.
“He is very ill. Do you understand what is happening?”
“Yes,” I say, but my face must tell him something else.
“His lungs are filling with fluid. If we do not intervene, he will pass.”
A strange word for a doctor, I think, and I explain about the dementia and diapers. “The family has decided he would not want to live this way.” The family… as if I am not one of them.
“I understand,” he tells me and explains about Morphine.
The family, I keep thinking. Some other entity, not present. I know they are right. I know my uncle Larry would never have expected that the circle of life meant that he would return to the state by which he entered the world, helpless and unknowing.
I can’t shake the words out of my head. Lungs filling with fluid. Like drowning. I try not to think. In my head it is like the scene from ET where Elliot is screaming, “Help Him! He’s Dying! Do something!” Elliot is feeling ETs feelings. Am I reading Uncle Larry’s?
I am told I can go back in.
Machines are gone now. Nothing measuring the threads of life sustaining him. I try to speak to him but nothing comes out. His eyes roll and flicker and I wonder if he is screaming inside. Help me, I can’t breath. What if the morphine simply quiets the voice, not the mind? How is allowing someone to die not the same as killing?
I realize now that I am here to usher him out.
To usher him on to eternal life.
I am the only other character in the scene and I have no script.
Breath in, breath out.
I touch his soft cheek. Try to hold the sweet image of him peaceful, but the Help Me voice screams in the back of my mind. I push it out.
Breath in, breath out. Slower now.
No doctors. No nurses.
“I love you Uncle Larry,” I whisper, then say the Lord’s Prayer. I stroke his white hair back and rub his cheek.
Breath in. Pause. Pause. Breath out. Slower still.
“It’s OK to go now,” I tell him around the lump that fills my throat, “Go with Jesus now.”
Breath in. Pause. Pause. Pause. Pause. Breath out.
I stroke his head. “It’s OK,” I whisper.
“I’m here,” a voice says, as my cousin Patty slips into the room. Thank You Sweet Jesus, I think. She takes her place on the opposite side of the bed and tells him she loves him.
Breath in. Pause. Pause. Pause. Pause. Pause. Pause. Pause. Breath out.
It is probably five or fifteen minutes but it seems like days that we stand there; stroking, whispering.
“I think he’s gone,” I say as he breaths in again.
Patty’s eyes giggle. I remember she is known for nervous laughter at funerals and I am grateful for the release. So grateful not to do this alone.
Finally, it is over.
We say good-bye and tell the nurse who simply nods.
A peaceful parting?
I think Cadence is right.
Smiling would be good.