It was such a beautiful day – partly cloudy, unseasonably warm. Such a beautiful day that our uncle’s soul could not be contained by the body that was failing, so he took his last breath at 9:00 a.m., sharp. He was never really one to sit still for very long anyway.
My brother called me last night. I had already taken my last dose of meds and had stumbled into my pajamas, when he said, “Chels, you need to get here. He’s here at the hospital and he’s not going to make it through the night.” I clawed out of my pajamas and hurriedly put my clothes back on, and then called my sister. I knew as soon as I heard her voice that she would not be able to get out of bed because she was sick as a dog. She was heartbroken and asked me to say goodbye for her.
Texting with my brother, I advised him that my cab was on its way, and he told me that our uncle was not responding. I started shaking. I tried to remember to put random things into my purse, including my phone charger and my favorite cough drops. I put on extra deodorant (though I knew I was fighting a losing battle on that one – I sweat like crazy when the fluid builds up in my brain like it has been for the last 9 months while I’m upright).
After what seemed like an eternity, but was really only about 20 minutes, the cab arrived. He asked me where I was going. I told him the facility. He asked me how to get there, because he had just moved to the area from Phoenix. Great. The blind leading the blind. Then on the way he had to stop for gas (but he kept the meter running, saying it was at a “reduced rate”). I couldn’t believe it. I was crying and trying to explain to him that I wasn’t sure if I would make it to the hospital on time. Then he started quizzing me on how old my uncle was and if he was sick for long. I’m not new, I know where this line of questioning leads: some stranger-danger jackass is going to tell me that he lived a long life (a week and a half short of reaching 65) and that if he was sick a long time, then I shouldn’t be sad.
But I am sad. You see, my uncle and I missed out on two decades of knowing each other. When he found out I was sick, he began slowly reaching out to me. But before that, we had had no contact. Twenty years ago, his brother – my dad – died, and as people do when they endure a major life event like that, we acted our worst. First, we fought over what Dad should wear to be buried. Whenever he wasn’t working, Dad was in either pajamas or very grubby outdoor clothes, and we kids and our step-mom said we wanted Dad to be buried in his (very nice) favorite pajamas. Our uncle put his foot down and said he should be buried in a 3-piece suit, because otherwise, what would their clients think? (Dad and our uncle along with their close friend owned a successful business.) I told him that the funeral wasn’t for the clients. Eventually we settled on the favorite pajama pants and a nice shirt.
Second, our uncle took me aside and told me, “I know I wasn’t very interested in you when you were growing up. I figured you didn’t really need me because your dad was so involved in your life. Now that he’s gone, if you ever need advice, you can come to me.” I was 22 at the time and already had been living away from home for about 5.5 years, so I felt as if he really missed the boat on being part of my life. Mostly I was hurt that he admitted what he thought about me. I was raw from dealing with the sudden loss of my dad and had no support like everyone else who was there and paired up like they were going on Noah’s Ark – no boyfriend and no spouse. I did what I had perfected long ago, and that was to shut down emotionally. 19 years have passed since we buried Dad and I moved around the country.
Slowly last year my uncle’s messages started to trickle in. He even made a donation to my YouCaring page to help me with expenses during my Magical Medical Mystery Tour. When he found out I was moving back to Minnesota, he asked if we could spend some time together. So the week after all of my belongings arrived and were still taking over my living room/bedroom, we squeezed a chair in between the boxes and the wall so that he could talk to me while I laid flat on the bed. I was mid-sentence in giving him a generic update on what was happening with me when he grabbed my hand and said while fighting back tears, “I’m sorry. I’m so happy to see you.”
Now that I’m 20 years older and have contemplated life, death and illness, it was all I needed to hear. I repeated his words back to him. He leaned over from the chair to hug me tight and we cried. It’s the crying that you do when you see life with such clarity and you know that your time is limited. It’s the crying that you do when you’re not afraid of death but you are afraid of not being able to make wrongs right before it’s time for you to shed your body. He had stage IV squamous cell carcinoma and didn’t know how long he had until he could no longer function. We managed to have a few more visits before Christmas; after Christmas, he developed pneumonia and was sentenced to bed rest and constant care by his new girlfriend.
Last night a group of people hovered around his hospital room, all red-eyed and occasionally sadly smiling over the sharing of memories. I thanked his girlfriend for taking such good care of him; she went home to rest. Eventually the visitors dwindled down until it was my brother and I, our cousin and his best friend, our uncle’s ex-wife and our uncle’s best friend/long-time business partner. My nighttime meds were kicking in and making me extremely sleepy and I desperately needed to lay down to take the pressure off of my brain, so someone very kindly set up a cot for me in the family waiting room. My brother opted to sleep in the chairs. Everyone else stayed in the room with our uncle. I figured that we would hear sometime in the night that our uncle had passed.
I woke up and stumbled to the community bathroom and tried to make myself presentable. My eye makeup was smeared to raccoon status. My deodorant indeed was a huge disappointment. I stopped pretending to care and instead made my way to our uncle’s room. Surprisingly, only the best friend was there watching over our uncle – my uncle’s son, his best friend and the ex-wife had gone home to change clothes and make sure the dog was taken care of. My brother was still asleep in the family room and so the best friend/business partner went to get coffee while I stayed at my uncle’s bedside.
I used my time with him to sing. Sometimes it was impossible to get the notes out because the knot in my throat strangled me with grief. He wasn’t conscious and was fighting to take in air while he slowly drowned in his lungs. It was painful to watch because our once super-fit uncle had fluid pooling in his abdomen and lungs, prompting him to keep his mouth gaping open while he worked just as hard to push the air out as he did to get the oxygen in. Singing was all I knew to do because I felt helpless – I was coming into this process late and didn’t know what his wishes were as far as pain control went.
When my brother and my uncle’s friend entered the room, they both were concerned about the amount of work it was taking for my uncle to try to get air into his lungs. He seemed to be clenching his fists a bit and his shoulders were also working themselves forward and back in an effort to try to take in oxygen. The three of us decided that we wanted him to be comfortable, so I found the nurse and asked her if we could get assistance with pain medication. We talked about the effect that upping his meds would have on him, which was mainly depressed breathing. I was concerned that our uncle’s son wouldn’t make it back to the hospital in time. My sister and her husband were also trying to get there to say goodbye. But we went ahead and had the orders changed so our uncle could receive his meds more frequently to aid him in dying in comfort. We didn’t know when that would happen, because he survived another night when he should have been gone, really.
The nurse gave him painkillers in his IV and some drops under his tongue; he seemed to settle down and labored less to take in air. I stepped out of the room for about three minutes to make a phone call. When I returned, his color had changed completely. Our uncle was taking in small, shallow breaths, and his skin had taken on an unnatural tone of yellow with underlying grey. My brother held one hand while I held the other, and our uncle’s friend stayed at his feet. We all told him we loved him, we all wanted him to feel no pain, and it was okay.
I watched the pulse at his neck as it slowly ebbed like a far-off ripple on a lake. Finally, I put my fingers to his carotid and confirmed there was no pulse. The friend went to the nurse’s station to call the nurse and resident into the room. Our uncle had left, to join his mom and dad, his brother and sister, and probably my sister, as well as countless other souls who were no longer caged by their bodies. No more pain, only flying free.
My dad (L) and my uncle (R), playing around with their mom’s pantyhose.