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When Dad was dying, my siblings and I planned to be with him when he passed away. We relieved one another from watches like weary shift workers. Dad sometimes thrashed under the weighty spell of morphine; but, awake, he cajoled and teased. “Why don’t you hide me under the bed, and buzz the nurses.” By then, he was IV’d and catheterized. “Tell them I went for a drive.”
Once, I asked what he’d like to do when he got better. It was a falsity he allowed, replying he would like to take a drive and look for a man he used to know. When he slept, I watched his uneven breathing or wetted his blistered lips, or rubbed his pale feet – all signs of death being close, although I didn’t know that then.
On my 54th day of vigil, Mother said: “Go home. See your family.” The young oncologist’s eyes teared up when I asked him how long Dad might live. “One never really knows. He could live for months.” The doctor himself had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
The next night, after I returned home, my sister called at 3:20 a.m. to say Dad had died with a private nurse at his side, but no family. Even my sister, only minutes away, hadn’t made it. The nurse said that he chose when to die, that everyone does. Seven years later, Mother, too, would die with a nurse at her side, but no family.
After that, I took hospice training, determined to be present at someone’s death, searching for that last paragraph of my parents’ lives. I’d read that documentary maker Ken Burns brought dead people back in films because he never recovered from losing his mother.
Post-training, I requested a patient at the very end and was assigned a woman dying from ovarian cancer. “The patient is not conscious. It may not be long,” the director said.
A nurse introduced the family. The husband was handsome, smelled of liquor and left immediately, but sister Fran lingered by the bed where Marie lay, limp as a doll, so sedated that her bed rails were down.
Fran showed me photos. Marie, the ballroom dancer. Marie, the wife, the mother of two. Marie, the beach-lover. They bore no resemblance to the bald woman in the blue gown, although her skin was still almond-coloured and luminous. Her lips were moist, her fingernails painted red. Two gold chains lay around her neck, one with a ruby and one a sapphire. Her children’s birthstones?
“She’s had a lot of morphine, but you can still read to her.”
“Her skin is beautiful.”
Fran’s eyes teared up like the young doctor’s. “I try to take good care of her.”
My chest felt heavy. Clearly, Fran felt Marie would die soon. My intentions seemed so shallow that I wanted to confess my desire to superimpose her sister’s death on that of my parents. For what? Closure? I knew better.
“Just buzz the nurses if you need anything,” Fran said.
I massaged Marie’s feet with coconut oil. They felt satiny and were warm, as if she were lying in the sun. Her toenails were painted red and her circulation looked good. A nurse peeked in. “That’s nice,” she said. I read aloud.
Later, Marie lifted her hand as if to take an oath. She turned from side to side. Within seconds, she was moaning and thrashing. I tried to lift the bed rails, but couldn’t, so I covered her with my body, afraid she’d fall from the bed. I pressed the nurse’s buzzer. I called out, nurse, nurse, but this made Marie thrash harder.
When two nurses arrived, my thumb still pressing the buzzer, one said: “Get your hand off that,” and waved me away. Together they raised the bed rails. “You need to leave.”
As I signed out, another nurse glared at me. Did they know I wasn’t a true hospice worker, but an imposter?
Driving home, I cried, remembering Marie. I cried for Dad who never got to take a drive. I cried, too, because I was a failure at death.
When the hospice director called, I recounted Marie being hard to handle and how the nurses seemed upset.
“Deborah,” she said, “You do know that you were pressing the morphine pump?”
“They said you were giving Marie morphine.”
I knew then that I hadn’t been pressing the nurse’s buzzer. An accidental Kevorkian moment. “No. Is Marie all right?’
“Yes. I need to write a report.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, a report is necessary.”
“No, I don’t mean that. Are you sure Marie is okay?”
“I am so sorry. Please believe me. I’m mortified.”
I pictured Marie’s husband and children, a ruby and a sapphire, and Fran. Had I rushed their dying loved one’s death?
When Marie’s obituary appeared, I saw that she’d lasted for months. Maybe I had been protected by my mistake, I thought. Weeks of sitting with Marie would have endeared her to me.
I couldn’t return to hospice volunteering. My mistake hung over me. In time, though, I was able to build my own narrative, not from my parents’ death, nor Marie’s, but from death itself. How unpredictable it is. How mysterious. One never really knows.
Deborah Joy Corey lives in Castine, Me.Report Typo/Error