When my brother was killed in a car accident at the age of 19, there was no way to possibly be prepared for his death. It came like a thief in the night, and it ripped out the hearts of everyone in our family. For years, this was my touchstone experience of death. It took me twenty years to write the book about that experience, and the way that loss helped to shape the person I would become.
Before I had the chance to write that book, however, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. This was the experience of a wholly different kind of death: it came not like a thief in the night, but like a lingering unwelcome house guest. Death loomed for over a year and a half, false hope springing up here and there when the radiation wasn't so bad, or the coughing abated slightly.
Dad spent a solid month in the hospital, connected to a myriad of wires and tubes, disturbed by incessantly blinking lights and relentless beeping. The nurses weren't unpleasant, but tending to his needs was clearly just another task on their to-do lists. At one point, they suspected the cancer had spread, and they wanted to run more tests to confirm this.
"What the hell does it matter?" we asked the doctor, because - he was dying anyway. Why the hell run more tests?
They abandoned that idea, but we all felt a sense of hopelessness and lack of control until the day came when it was clear it was time for him to go home - for the last time.
There was some relief in this, but little joy. A little hospital bed and clinical scene awaited his arrival. He grumbled about not being able to dose himself according to a complicated schedule with the dozens of medications Mom hid from him in the kitchen. He frowned if one of us looked at him too long. He said to me one day, with such sadness in his voice and eyes, "I just want to rip all of this... stuff out of my arms," grabbing at the IV that would never be removed from his vein. "I can't believe this is happening."
Dad ate his last meal precisely one week before he died. He had a few bites of pork loin and roasted potatoes, laid down his fork, then looked out the window, a faraway look in his eyes. As I helped him back to bed, he paused to look through the window of the back door.
"Do you want to take a walk outside, Dad?" I asked.
He sighed. "Maybe tomorrow."
I got him settled in bed, and he never rose from it again.
His last week was, thankfully, attended by his wife and kids and hospice nurses trained to be more more compassionate than those in the cancer ward. We all tried to stay ahead of his pain, pumping as much morphine into his system as the device would allow, though it didn't always work. It was a waiting game... all of us, including my father, just waiting for him to die.
"Why is it taking so long?" he asked during one of his few lucid moments that week. We all guiltily thought the same thing.
When the death rattles finally came on an early Sunday morning, I happened to walk through the door to hear them, the rattles and my mom's cries. She was holding his left hand and praying, so I went to the other side of the bed and held his right. We didn't really know what to do, other than to be present as his rattles and last gasps for air slowly came to an end, and he died.
My father did not go gently into that good night, no. And yet, Mom and I felt we had witnessed something profound - accompanying him, like midwives, as he passed from this life into the next.
It could have been more profound, the whole period during which he was dying. We knew, as we looked back on all of it, that there had to be a better way to die.