Yesterday morning at 3 a.m. my father-in-law passed away in a hospice house. Having already experienced this profound loss with both my parents, I seem better prepared to support my husband through the grief and feelings of loss. The night before, as we made the hour plus drive down I-85 to the hospice house, for his sake, I tried to stay mindful and centered in the now. There was little traffic considering it was only 9 o’clock on a Monday evening. Rain continued to gently spatter the windshield as I watched the wipers swish it away every couple of seconds. My husband drove through the dark, rain soaked night as I navigated. Neither of us had much to say beyond the perfunctory directions I gave.
Dying of bone cancer, my father-in-law was transferred from the hospital to the hospice house only a few days before. In contrast to the institutionalized look of the hospital, the hospice house met us with a warm, craftsman style facade of huge stacked stone columns and pecan stained wooden windows. I remember thinking, “What a beautiful place to die.” This time of night the door was locked. So, I pushed the intercom button and heard the buzzing sound as the security guard unlocked it for us. At the front desk, I signed us in, hesitating over the question, “Are you spending the night?”. I looked at the guard and said, “He’s not expected to make it through the night.” The guard nodded and told me to check whichever box I wanted, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. I thought, “If I could, I would choose ‘No’ as in no, he would not die.” But, we are mortal. We all die. This was to be the end of a life.
As we walked down the hall, I looked at the chapel room to our left and then, ahead at a couple lounging together on one of the large sofas in front of the stone fireplace. They could have been any couple snuggled together in their living room, enjoying a cozy fire on a drizzly winter night. But, this was a couple also in grief, waiting for a life to end. They half lay on the sofa with stocking feet resting on the coffee table before them, her head on his shoulder, whispering to each other in the quiet of the night. She gave me a small, weak smile as we passed. I returned the smile and wondered if the grief in her eyes was also reflected in my own. As we turned the corner, I could see the nurses’ station down the hall. Three of the angels of hospice sat at the station talking in hushed tones as they went over the charts of the dying. I did not know how anyone could work day after day, night after night, helping someone die but, I knew I was exceptionally grateful these courageous women were here tonight.
We slipped into the room just before the nurses’ station. My mother-in-law and youngest daughter were already there by my father-in-law’s side. We all hugged as he lay in morphine-induced unconsciousness, struggling for each breath with a sort of snoring sound. If he hesitated a breath, my mother-in-law would lightly rest a hand on his chest as if feeling for his aliveness until he took a breath. We talked about other visitors and the flowers in the room and how much longer it might be before he passed and was free of pain and struggle. There were phone calls to and from other family members and close friends, who were scheduled to arrive by car or air to say their goodbyes but, who were obviously not going to make it in time. We walked down the hall for drinks or restroom stops. I noticed the couple lounging in the outer room was gone, perhaps to sit by the bed of their loved one, waiting for death to come.
As I watched my father-in-law struggle for each breath, I could see why assistance in dying is gaining support. This was hard to watch. I hoped the morphine masked the pain enough that he truly was not suffering too much. I felt small and helpless. And, I couldn’t help wondering how my own passing would be. I often heard people say they wished for a peaceful death and also wondered if they might consider this peaceful. When he finally gave up his struggle and left this earthly place, it was a relief to know he was no longer suffering. While life is important and we cherish and make the most of each day, how a life ends is also important.
In memory of my father-in-law, John Merlino