“It’s not death I’m afraid of – it’s the process of dying.”
I've said that over the years to various people. Having a strong faith in life after death, being dead is a mystery, but since nobody has any control over the process, there isn’t much point in being afraid of it. What will be, will be.
I’ve watched four people die. First my mother, who just went into a coma and never woke up. That was an easy death. She’d been in the hospital for about a month, with kidney failure, and the doctors hadn’t expected her to last even that long. I was summoned home, having only left home to move to England with my husband and five month old daughter, a month previously. So, leaving the baby with the extra help of my mother-in-law, and dripping milk and tears all over the plane, I flew home only to find that Mom had rallied slightly, and was able to visit with me for short periods, and we talked about things to do at Christmas – still six weeks away. But the rally was short lived, and before long, she was in a coma again. Her doctor wanted to try an experimental drug on her, and Dad agreed. When I went to visit her the next day, she had come out of the coma, but had no knowledge of her problems, and was tied to her bed to keep her from continually removing her various tubes. What a day that was – her insisting that we should allow her to go home. She did say, “If I have to die, I want it to be in front of my own TV,” so she was somewhat aware of the seriousness of the situation. But we didn’t take her home, and she went into the coma that she didn’t come out of again.
The hospital called us at 4 a.m. as her blood pressure was very low, so Dad and I went in. My sister had to stay back with her 3 week old baby. We sat in her room listening to her very slow irregular breathing. I went to check with the nurse to see if we could smoke, and she said that was fine. It didn’t take long until her breathing stopped, and then started just once more, with what they call the death rattle – one last noisy exhale. A nun was summoned by the nurses to say some prayers, and she glared resentfully at us as she mumbled the ritual.
Then eight years later, I was summoned again, this time for my Dad’s death bed. We were living in New Zealand at the time, and our family had grown to three kids, aged 7,5 and 3. Dad had always smoked very heavily, and had worked in an x-ray department where the constant levels of ozone were apparently very bad for lungs – although nobody knew it at the time. As kids we loved visiting him at work because of the sweet smell of ozone – just like after a thunder shower. Dad had been admitted to the hospital with congestive heart failure – and was in intensive care on continual oxygen. He too rallied for awhile after I got there for my visit, and my sister too soon arrived. He improved sufficiently for him to go out of intensive care into a private room, and things seemed to be getting better. I was scheduled to fly back on the Sunday afternoon, but on the Saturday, his medical team decided to do an operation and insert a tube directly into his lungs. Although the operation seemed to work, and he said he could breathe more easily than he had for ages, he wasn’t out of the woods, and that night – again 4 a.m. , the hospital summoned Grace, his new wife and me as he was quickly going down hill. He was alert and smiling when we got there, and talked about the results of the baseball game he had been watching the night before. But slowly he went into a coma. Grace had gone out of the room and I was sitting there when he suddenly became alert and in a great panic. He was struggling to breathe – literally drowning in his own fluids. So I rushed to get Grace, who being a nurse herself knew the routine. She got the staff to give him a shot of morphine, and he went back into his coma, and an hour or so later, just stopped breathing. But there is no doubt that he was afraid.
My sister was the next. She was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma – and in those days, this was very rare. None of the cancer staff in St Cloud Hospital had had to deal with it, so they needed to consult their colleagues at the famous Mayo Clinic to find out how to treat it. But despite 9 months of chemo, she didn’t improve, and when she decided to stop having it, she quickly deteriorated, and all her organs were invaded. The hospital did surgery to find out if a colostomy would help, but in the end, put a stomach drain tube in, and told her she had a couple of months to live if she was lucky. She only drank milk – no food – and it made her feel a bit more satisfied, but as soon as it had left her stomach, it was drained straight out into the tube. My husband and I decided to go, as we knew it wouldn’t be long and we wanted to visit her before she was too ill to know we were there.
Such a shock when I went into her room. She looked 20 years older in just the few months since I had last visited her. She said the continual morphine she was getting made her feel more comfortable than she had for months, and left her in a continual dream like state.
“You know they say I have only a few months,” she said.
“Yes, I heard. Are you scared?”
“Not really. It’s obvious that what I have now isn’t really life. So I have decided that we are going to talk about it as my big adventure into the unknown.”
She started that adventure a couple of months later.
Then five years ago, my husband died. We quite often talked about death – as he’d been present when both his parents died, so knew what to expect. We joked about how it would be far better for me to die first – since he was the one who would do best on his own. Neither of us thought I would be very good at coping. We didn’t talk about Heaven or anything religious in terms of death, but we did promise each other to try to come back and communicate in some way, if we were the first to go. So that strong feeling of continuing on in some form was with him. He died from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma – and after his first bout was thought to be successfully treated with chemo, we were hopeful for awhile. But then the tell tale symptoms came back, and the hospital confirmed that his days were numbered.
The day before he died, he whispered to me, “I’m not afraid but I just wish it was all over. I feel so awful.” And his wish was granted. Our daughters and I sat by him when he gave up the struggle again at 4 a.m.