I enter the small hospital room, adorned with white walls and white boards where his name is scribbled in black writing. Beneath his name is his care plan, followed by contact information for his family. Above the board is an old box TV, hanging from the wall. Fox News is on TV, one of the only shows I remember him watching. He is laying in a hospital bed with his upper body partially raised. He is still, but breathing. I exchange pleasantries with his son-in-law who offered to sit with him until I returned.
I was so glad he was able to stay and provide company to him. It was important to me that he not be alone right now. We hug and tell each other we love each other. Then he departs for the night. His shift has ended and we will see each other tomorrow morning when we will make the decision to move grandpa to home hospice. As much as I wanted to get him transferred earlier, it wasn’t possible to get hospice to the hospital any quicker.
I tell grandpa that I am moving the chairs around and setting things up. He doesn’t respond, he just continues to breath. His mouth is partially open. As he breathes, only his lower jaw moves as he takes in more air. It seems forced in that it doesn’t seem like he is purposely breathing.
The lights in the room are bright. Earlier that day, I made a comment about how bright the hospital lights are and that this place should consider soft lighting. To help fix this issue, I brought an orange lamp from home. I set it up on the stool across the room, plugged it in and turned it on. Then I turned off the brightest light in the room.
I find the larger, more comfortable chair and settle it near his bedside as close as I can. I take a seat on his left side. The side I was given at the dinner table when I became a member of this family. Grandpa is laying on his back and his eyes are partially open as if he was watching TV and dozing off. I don’t think he was really watching. He is partially covered in a soft, blue blanket.
As I sit, I hear alarms sounding in the hallway. They are not his alarms. Just a buzz of activity on the unit. In the hallway, nurses and doctors are going back and forth between the rooms, an employee is buffing the floor, and carts are being pushed back and forth. It’s noisy and I don’t like it. I imagined Grandpa wouldn’t either.
I get up and shut the door. As I do this, I explain to grandpa what I am doing. I return and sit by his side again. We watch TV together. I laugh at the news talking about Hilary Clinton and Obamacare imagining he would have alot to say about these two.
I hold his hand.
A nurse knocks on the door and opens it. As she enters, she asks, “Do you prefer to keep the door shut?” I explained that I did. It was too noisy. She smiles and explains she needs to turn Grandpa. I asked if everything was okay and she explained to me that they turn Grandpa often to help him be more comfortable. Another nurse came in to help and also changed his linens. Once the task was complete, they departed, closing the door quietly behind them.
I was given the Wi-Fi code while the nurses were there so I began to check emails while I sat next to Grandpa. I was also checking in with some friends who have done this before and was asking for their advice but soon, I didn’t feel comfortable checking emails. It felt wrong. I wasn’t present to him and I needed to be.
I decided to turn on some music and sit with him, in quiet. I turned off the TV and turned on Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra. I used Pandora and had set up a bluetooth speaker in the room. It took some time to work it out but after a while, the music was softly playing in the background. I had the thought to turn it up a bit louder than I felt necessary. After all, Grandpa has hearing aids. I wanted to be sure he could hear the music. I imagined he would get up and dance if he could. That’s what he did when the music of his time would come one.
I sat in the chair and rubbed his arms softly as I talked about the music selection. I told him that if he didn’t like the music, he would have to let me know. I felt his arm move as if in agreement of the music. Every once-in-a-while, the music would stop playing and I would share my frustration with Grandpa. I looked at him and noticed his breathing seemed different since the nurses turned him on his side. I smiled, thinking they must have made it easier for him to breathe.
I put my feet up on the end of his bed and closed my eyes. I took in a deep breath and smelled the hospital. It’s not what I want him to remember and I didn’t either so I got up and took out my essential oils. I diffused peppermint with a hint of lavender. I chose peppermint specifically because Grandpa turned to peppermint mints to replace his cigarettes when he stopped smoking many years before. I thought it might be comforting.
I then turned out the other light by the door. It was getting late, after 9pm and I wanted him to settle into a sleep. As we listened to the music of the 20’s and 30’s, I would rub his arms or hold his hand often. Sometimes, I would lift the blankets and sheets and physically hold his hand that way, instead of through the blankets. I didn’t talk much, we just sat there…together.
I would turn to look at his breathing from time to time. With the orange glow of the room it was difficult to see much movement but I could always see the bottom of his mouth opening with each breath. During these back and forth exchanges of stillness listening to music and breathing checks, I began to doubt my presence. What if he didn’t want someone here? What if he wanted to pass alone? I texted my brother-in-law and mother-in-law these thoughts. They both felt he would want someone here. I suppose but I wasn’t sure.
I pondered this for a while, listening to the music and watching his breathing.
I was going to leave around midnight. Hubby would take the next shift and stay until morning but that meant the kids would be at home alone, in bed for almost two hours. I didn’t like the thought of that. My brother-in-law offered to come and wait until I got home and hubby returned. But he was going to come earlier than I wanted to leave. I just didn’t want to go before midnight. As we exchanged text messages, I watched Grandpa breathe.
I noticed his breathing seemed to be spaced out more than it was before and I told my brother-in-law. He told me he was probably falling asleep and I also just believed he was breathing better because of his new position. But there was a part of me that felt this was him dying, so I stopped texting and just watched his breath. For thirty minutes I sat with him and rubbed his arms. I told him all would be okay. We were all going to be okay.
As time progressed, I noticed his bottom jaw wasn’t moving that much anymore. I feared he was going but continued to sit with him. There was no monitor in the room for me to check, I would have to trust my instincts.
No life-saving measures were to be taken anyway. While his heart was being monitored in the hallway, I had no idea if anyone was going to share with me if his heart had stopped. I went out into the hallway but no one was there. I walked to the nurses station but no one was there. So I peeked over the desk at the heart rate monitors and found Grandpa’s. The rate displayed, 53. “Hmmm…maybe he IS sleeping,” I thought to myself. I looked for his respirations but I didn’t see any. Realizing that these things can be wrong, I just chalked it up to being an error.
I returned to the room and checked my messages. I saw one from my brother-in-law. It was approaching the time where he would be leaving but I wasn’t ready. I told him to just stay home. I couldn’t leave. My entire body was telling me to stay.
I returned to his bedside and sat in the chair. I could still see his lower jaw moving but it was much slower than before. Only a breath every 15 seconds or so. I reached my upper body over the side of his bed and laid there. My arms across his chest and I prayed. “Lord, please take him into your kingdom. Please take him quietly, softly, and pain free.” I laid there, with more prayers and listened.
“Smile,” by Nat King Cole was playing through the speaker. My eyes closed and my body draped across the bed, reaching out to a man I knew was likely leaving this earth. As much as I wanted him to stay, to have one more conversation with him, I knew he was going. When the song was over, I looked up and noticed his whole body was still. Even though he had been still before, this seemed different. I felt like he was gone.
I returned to the nurses station. A male nurse sat at the monitor and I said, “What’s his heart rate?” He didn’t answer. I asked him again. He looked at me with sad eyes. I told him he seems very still now and I wanted to know if his heart was still beating. He said his heart rate was 24. I said, “So it’s time?”
He replied, “We can’t say for sure because there can be a rebound.” I didn’t care to hear him anymore. I turned towards the room. Another nurse said, “Are you going to call your mother?” I stopped, “Should I?” I asked. She said, “Only you can know if it’s best to call her now or after.” I returned to the room.
A nurse came in behind me. I moved to his right side and sat in a small chair. I leaned over and rubbed his head and stroked his hair. I began to cry. The nurse was comforting as she listened for his heartbeat. She looked at me. I asked if it was still beating and she said yes, but every 3 seconds or so. She showed me where to watch for his heartbeat and I stared. I told him everything was going to be okay and that I loved him. His pulse, slipped away.
I heard a flatline sound in the hallway. The nurse who didn’t want to tell me his heart rate just a few moments ago, said it was now gone. He was gone. It was 10:20pm.
It seemed fast to me. Just an hour before, he was breathing and now, he was lifeless.
“I have to call the family,” I told the nurse. I took a deep breath and called mom first. I didn’t know how she would answer the phone. I had hoped that she would answer it thinking I was just asking more about if I should be here or not. “Hello?” she said. “Whew,” I thought. “She isn’t crying.”
“He passed,” I said. “Oh he did?” she replied. I could tell she was starting to cry. We talked for a few moments and then I hung up. I called hubby next.
A few minutes later, a doctor came in. He assessed Grandpa and stood there, staring at me. I said, “So he has passed?” “Yes,” he said.
I tried calling the other siblings after but no one answered. I sat there, in the stillness of the room. Frank Sinatra playing in the background and I thought, “I hope I did this right.”
“I hope I did this right,” is something I would think often after leaving births. I hoped I provided a high level of service to my clients when they gave birth to their babies. And when I read this, there were so many similarities in the companioning of someone through birth and through death. We use all our senses in these situations. Oils to help relax, provide a memory imprint, to mask a smell; lighting to create a calming environment, releasing tension, submitting to the task at hand; and music to bring up memories or create them.
Birth is very similar to death. It’s a transition from one environment to another; a transition worthy of support and companionship. At birth, the transitioner (baby) is never alone. At death, many of us are alone. I couldn’t imagine leaving Grandpa alone to make this transition. He had a companion with him when he opened his eyes to his new life, he would have a companion when he closed his eyes for the last time.
It rained when we left the hospital. Something that doesn’t happen this time of year. It was a tiny sprinkle but noticeable. I found it significant that it drizzled, mid-winter. It was only for a moment, but it was happening.
I have never companioned someone through death in this way before. I have helped families companion their dying babies and children but I have never been the companion in this capacity. It was truly an honor to be there as Grandpa made this transition and I will never forget these moments we shared together.
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