When they arrive, she is propped up on pillows in the hospital bed. Her body is thin and frail, her head slumped down onto her neck. She looks like a rag doll that has been tossed aside by a child who’s grown tired of playing with dolls. The noise in the room is deafening. The oxygen machine, the vital signs machine, so many machines pumping and pinging and beeping. Machines sucking in, pushing out, breathing. The machines are breathing, because she can’t. The room is darkened by blue curtains hanging everywhere, on the windows, suspended from the ceiling, shrouding the bed. Blue ghosts. Fluttering … waiting.
They gather around her, picking up her skeletal hands in theirs. They adjust her sheets and pillows, trying desperately to make her more comfortable. They sit on the edges of her bed and on the stiff plastic chairs they’ve brought in from the hallway. They try not to, but they cry. They don’t want her to see their tears. It might scare her. It might make her feel that all hope is lost. They don’t want her to lose hope. But the oldest daughter … she knows.
Someone wearing scrubs brings in a large, covered tray. The oldest daughter takes off the cover. They all look at the globs of colorless food, the cup of lukewarm water with a teabag beside it, a package of soda crackers, a tiny tub of margarine, the size of a quarter. She won’t eat it. Not one single bite. They try to convince her. They try to tell her she needs to keep up her strength.
But she refuses. They don’t really blame her. How do you convince someone who can barely breathe that eating that mess on the tray is going to make them feel stronger?
They sit with her all morning. All afternoon. All night. Nurses keep coming in, poking her with needles and checking the monitors and giving her pills in small, clear containers with Styrofoam cups of water to wash them down. They put bendy straws in the cups because it is hard for her to sit up straight. It is hard for her to lift her head for too long. It is hard for her to swallow. It is all …
Days later, the doctor finally comes in. The “cancer doctor.” He tells them he is very sorry, but she has Stage 3 Cancer in her right lung. And Pneumonia in her left lung. He cannot treat the cancer until the pneumonia is gone. She’s been on the strongest antibiotics possible, being pumped directly into her veins, around the clock. But they’re not working. It isn’t looking good. Nothing is looking good.
The blue ghosts continue to flutter.
The husband asks if she can be brought home, closer to her family and friends. It is a four-hour trip. The doctor says yes, if she can be stabilized enough for the ambulance ride. But don’t hold your breath.
Don’t hold your breath. Just breathe. In and out, just breathe. Time your breaths with the oxygen machine. In, out, whir, whir, beep. Breathe.
The next morning, a different nurse comes in. A special nurse, wearing a white coat. She tells them she is a “nurse practitioner.” She starts talking to them about End-of-Life Care. They stare at her, wide-eyed, scared, disbelieving. Believing. They wonder how it has come to this, so fast. She isn’t ready to leave yet. They aren’t ready either. There is still so much to do. So much life left to live. She wants to watch her great-grandson grow up, to see her granddaughter get married. She wants to go on road trips with her husband, to visit her youngest daughter in Saskatchewan, to help her oldest daughter through Stage 4 breast cancer. She does not want to go anywhere, except home. But they all know she will never go home again.
In the afternoon, she begins tearing at the tubes taped to her face. She wants them OFF. Get them off. She can’t take it anymore. The noise in her ears, around her head, it’s driving her crazy. She’s crying. For the first time, she’s crying. It makes them feel so helpless, so scared. They call for the nurses to help. Just please stop this noise. Please take these large, bulky tubes off her face. The nurse practitioner comes back. She tells them the tubes can be replaced with smaller, quieter tubes if they move to the Room at The End of The Hall….the End-of-Life Room.
The oldest daughter looks at her mother’s panicked, tear-stained face and asks if that is what she wants.
She says yes, just make this noise stop.
The curtains in this room are white. There are no monitors. There is a whiteboard above the bed, but there are no instructions on it. These chairs are made of fake leather, old upholstery, more hard plastic. There are no pictures on the walls, except for one cheap pastel painting from the 1980s, framed in imitation gold. The walls are an ugly shade of faded peach. Why do people use these colors? They’re not comforting. This room is not comforting. It’s cold and bleak and lifeless. It’s the Dying Room.
They spend four hours together in the Dying Room. The dying matriarch of this devastated family, the patriarch who won’t be able to function without her, the two daughters, the granddaughter. They watch her life slowly slip away. They listen to the rasping in her lungs. They feel the fissure that will soon become a fracture. A jagged break in the bones of this family that will never be repaired.
Suddenly, she jumps out of bed. They scream for help. Nurses come and give her more needles. She’s thrashing and foaming at the mouth. There is blood in her urine bag. She smells different. Her eyes are bulging. Her breathing is ragged, gurgling. It’s not natural. It’s the death rattle. Nurses come with more drugs. Every 15 minutes, more drugs.
They can’t stop crying. They beg the nurses, please help us, please don’t leave us, please don’t let her suffer.
It’s the final hour. They are sitting at each corner of her bed. Four of them. The youngest daughter turns on quiet music. The oldest daughter rubs her forehead. The granddaughter rubs her feet. The husband tells funny stories. They all laugh softly. These are the last things she hears. Then she tells the oldest daughter, with her mind, telepathically, she’s leaving now. It’s time. The daughter lifts her head from the hard plastic railing of the bed. Then they all know. They rise and hug her tightly and tell her they love her and they cry, cry, cry, and cry. Guttural cries that come from the deepest part of the soul. The broken part.
The doctor comes in and shines the flashlight from an iPhone into her eyes, listens for a heartbeat, turns to them and says, I’m sorry for your loss. Then walks out.
The ghosts stop fluttering.
They drive home in her car. The car that went on hundreds of family road trips. But she’s not on this one. They drive in silence. Four hours. Four hours in the Dying Room. Four hours to drive home. Her quilt is on the backseat. It smells like her. Her shoes are on the floor. Her suitcase is in the trunk. She’s everywhere. She’s nowhere. They look at the stars in the night sky. But they’ve been rearranged. Nothing will ever be the same. They watch the sun come up on the horizon, rising over an endless ocean. It’s a new day. The first day in a world without her in it.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Lieze Van Elst/Flickr Creative Commons