58 Years on the Fourth of July


June 21, 2017

          “You haven’t gotten used to this,” she said. “You must not have been doing it long.”
          “Sixteen years,” I replied. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”
          I hope I never do.
          She hugged me for a long time, and I returned the gift. Tears streaming down his face, her son graced me with a hug as well. For a few moments I was part of this family I had met only a couple of hours before.
          This lovely lady and her husband would have been married 58 years this year, on the fourth of July. He had been fighting a good fight against it all — lung disease, cancer, heart failure. She had seen him weak and struggling before, and even that afternoon she had faith that’d he’d win another day. I suspect she believed he was stronger than anything this world might throw at him. As a matter of fact, I had to beg her to come when she did.
          The nursing home had sent him over to the emergency room for the umpteenth time, but she had a “hair appointment” at three. Surely she could wait to come until after. “He’s been sick a while,” she said. “He always gets better.”
          “I know he’s a fighter,” I replied. “But I’m worried that this time he won’t…get better. I think you should come now.”
          So she did.
          He was struggling — inside and out. I could see it in the fast, irregular blips on the monitor, in his limp eyes, his pale, damp skin. His heart was pounding, his breath shallow and labored. All of his energy was spent with staying alive. He didn’t even have enough left to look at us, to look at her.
          I tried to ease the suffering as well as I could. A little assistance with his breathing, a cool cloth for his damp head, his love by his side. They had all already decided that they didn’t want more — no machines breathing for him, no shocks to restart his heart. This battle was lost months ago. They were just hoping the last round would come from a sniper, one stealthy shot he never heard.
          In the midst of the beeping of the monitor, the blowing of the oxygen, the stir of activity in the other rooms, this family sat — quiet, calm, patient. Wife, son, daughter-in-law, they all held vigil over the patriarch. I wondered if they saw what I saw. His breath was weakening, and he was at peace with that. He did not fight it. There was no panic, no fear, no drama, only a slowing, a dwindling, of breath. Then there was none. No breath — shallow or otherwise. One moment it was there. He was there. Then it was not. Still they were calm.
          After her love had gone on and we had shared hugs and tears and kind words, she came back to me. “I’m so glad it was you,” she said. “I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to care for him in his last hours.”
         In her sorrow she gave me a gift.