My Uncle Randy was dying. His heart was weak from Marfan Syndrome. A young, aloof doctor told us there was nothing else they could do at the conventional hospital, so it would be best to move him to a hospice. The next morning he was carted off to the hospice on Lake Street like a restaurant ridding itself of decomposing meat. His girlfriend was upset, his estranged kids were upset (especially his daughter), his brothers and sister were upset, even my nonchalant mask had been removed.
I wanted him on a horde painkillers until he passed. I wanted him to feel no discomfort, to quietly pass into the next realm while floating on a billowy cloud of velvet without any fear. This, I doubted, would happen in a hospice. Once he was in his new room, I noticed he was not hooked up to any equipment at all. The only sounds were of his labored, phlegm filled lungs trying to corral another breath. “Why even have a building?” I asked my wife. “Why not just place some beds out in a field, and put people in them until they die?”
I’m not sure what kind of people work in a hospice. Don’t get me wrong, they could be the most loving people on earth, but if so, how are they able to wake up each morning and do this job without being in a constant state of empathy, sympathy, angst, and heartbreak? How hard would you have to make your heart to work in such a place? It’s either the most gratifying job in the world, or the most wearisome.
A hospice is nothing like a hospital. The cafeteria is more like that of a funeral home commissary where most of the food is brought in by family and friends. The waiting areas are like lavish living rooms, with walls of books and soft leather couches. I remember reading parts of a Frank Sinatra biography while I was there. Did you know Ol’ Blue Eyes went through four wives? Anyway, the whole vibe in a hospice is expensive hotel, blended with funeral parlor, add a dash of morbid library.
While I’m contemplating the age difference between Mia and Frank, a man who I’ve known all my life is slowly perishing in a small room with a large window that lets in too much light (considering the situation). He was one of the few painter contractors in our town. Perhaps he painted this room and looked out this very window when all seemed right.
His two brothers, one sister, and two of his four kids were present. His parents, long since passed, were in the hereafter waiting for him. I hoped it was like a homecoming for them; that they waited for him with giddy anticipation. Surely the shedding of this skin, the final release of the soul from the body, is a wondrous thing where they are.
All of our animals are “put to sleep”, but here we were, watching this man struggle to breathe, wrestling with the torment that is a death. The things that were burdensome a week ago seemed so minuscule now. Thankfully, he was mostly unconscious. Without food, the body has little energy to stay awake – God’s natural morphine for the sick and dying. Organs were shutting down one by one. They no longer keep track of which ones in a hospice. My mother, his sister, was a nurse. She was able to tell us what was happening and assisted with keeping her brother as comfortable as she could.
There are always the visitors that come by to add a bit of flavor to the experience. You have the soft-hearted friends who cry at the bedside and try their best to console the family. You have the comic relief friends of family members, who aren’t there because they know the mortally ill, but to give support to the family. These are the ones that make a lot of jokes while talking in the halls, and act like they have no fear of death. These are the ones all of the nurses and doctors like. Both types of visitors are needed in these times to keep us allied with the living. My gay Uncle Mike (brother of my Uncle Randy) saved me from some grief by telling me of a procedure he’d just went through where they stuck a camera into his urethra.
When my Uncle Randy breathed out the final bit of air his lungs will ever know, his long body was transferred to a gurney and a sheet was put over his head to hide this aspect of humanity from the rest of the living. We have made it forbidden to see a body without animation – your old body becomes “other than” after death, and is described with macabre words like corpse, or even carcass. What are we trying to hide here? This was a corpse. No ambulances were picking people up from the hospice, only hearses.
I’m sure that his body lay in some cold, windowless room while we made our plans; the mortician in and out, doing his thing. Of course, at the funeral, he didn’t look like himself at all. He looked like a poorly designed wax figure of his former self. Madame Tussaud’s depiction of my uncle would’ve been a better thing to remember him by. They even had his hair in some poofy manner which would have embarrassed him, but the great thing about death is that you no longer have the capacity to be self conscious.
His friend Bear sat in the back and cried, his children cried, everyone cried. My Uncle Bobby, his brother who’s a pastor, did the memorial service. My gay uncle did the music, playing a medley on the funeral home’s contributed piano; a medley which ended with “Come Sail Away” by Styx (allegedly Randy’s favorite song). The nurse, the preacher, the musician – his family was ready made for the dying. I couldn’t help but wonder if, even though he was the youngest of the four, this was the reason he was the first to go.