Sunday, November 13, 2011

early holiday

Everything can be taken from a man or woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude . . . to choose one's own way.

-- Viktor Frankl

There had been a change in her condition. In the vernacular, we say she had "taken a turn." That's what I learned in the overnight notes -- she had taken a turn, for the worse.

I called her apartment, where niece and caregiver were holding vigil. That's what I learned when I spoke to them -- they were waiting for Charlotte to die. That's what the change meant. She was, as we say in our lingo, "actively dying."

Niece and caregiver thought that Charlotte would like it if I came over. So I cancelled other appointments and went to visit Charlotte. I found her, as we say in our notes, "unresponsive." Her eyes were closed, and there were seven or eight seconds between her breaths. Otherwise she did not move. A peaceful scene.

I said a psalm or two, and spoke a wish to whomever listens in our extremity, that her last visions would be beautiful. It's said in our business, we say it to ourselves and to clients, that the last sense to go is the sense of hearing, and that therefore words of love, or perhaps just the sound of the voice, may be of comfort as the the last coma descends. I don't know what evidence there is for that advice, but we say it and we act as if it were true. It's of comfort at least to those who are left behind -- there's something they can do in the last moments. They don't just have to suffer. There is something they can do.

Then I talked in the living room with Karyn, the niece; about the help she can get from her brothers and sisters as Charlotte slipped away, about funeral plans, about financial arrangements. Rita the caregiver came from the bedroom, saying that Charlotte had changed again. I went to the bedside and at first it looked the same to me; but her breaths became less frequent. The intervals grew. Ten seconds. Fifteen. Thirty seconds. Then we waited as a minute elapsed. Another minute. I touched her hands, then her cheek. She was cold. It was a simple as that. No turmoil, no evident struggle, no death rattle. There were tears in the room, but also a sense of accomplishment: she had died at home as she wanted, and without suffering.

Karyn looked at me. "Thank you for coming. She was waiting for you."

I don't think she was waiting for me. I don't think my part in this story was as crucial as that. But I said -- and this is another piece of our lore -- that some people hang on until something important happens, till a family member arrives, a holiday passes, a child is married or a baby born. I don't think I was that important in this case. I don't think Charlotte was waiting for me. But it comforts her niece to tell the story this way, and it's not my job to kill her hope, or to trash the beauty of her fiction.

But here's another story. Roberto was twenty-two years old, and dying fast of lymphosarcoma. It was early October, and he saw that he wasn't going to live for the holidays. So he asked for -- no, he demanded, he made a fuss -- that the family should gather a month early, and have a Thanksgiving dinner. His mom thought this was a bit much, considering the complications. It was hard enough just to take care of him, without organizing an extra holiday. But he was tough. He insisted.

So they gathered; the family came from far and wide on that day. They had their turkey, and he got to see them all. He told them he loved them, and they gave thanks for his life, for their life together. And he died that evening, on his self-declared holiday, at 7:30.

Roberto couldn't survive his illness. He couldn't even survive to the holidays. But knowing what was impossible, he could embrace the just barely possible. He could declare his own holiday. He could call his people together. He called, and they responded. He was brave. He was clear in his head. He was a loving son to his mother, brother to his siblings, nephew to his uncles and aunts. He brought rejoicing to the day of his death. He declared his holiday, and held on for it.

The death of a young person is the hardest kind. So much is lost, the full life that older people sometimes in their last days say was theirs. But his courage and his honesty brought celebration to the day of his death. In obscenity he made beauty. He chose his attitude, and made his death into a song.

In neither of these cases did I do anything. I witnessed what someone else did. Karyn told a story of Charlotte's death. Roberto told the story of his own. They were no longer powerless. No longer victims, they became authors.

A pastor may come to speak the good news, but a chaplain comes to hear the good news. These were miracles, and I got to see them.


Doc said...

A very well read and thoughtful piece, Hollis! I would add, based on my own experiences, that I believe we sometimes underestimate the human will to stay around until one last task has been accomplished or one last piece of our personal puzzle put into place. Perhaps Charlotte was simply waiting for a man of the cloth to arrive at her bedside, to say a few words, to offer reassurance.... maybe even just to see her off to meet eternal life. No, she was not waiting for Hollis, but what you represented to her might have been more important than anyone may know. I have also heard that hearing is the last sense to go. It is most likely the first one to be activated, long before the others are even mildly established. We will never understand all of the mysteries of life, including the moment of death, but for all of us there is hope in the prospect that we might indeed be able to sway the moment when one world ends and another begins. Now that I've found your blog, I look forward to reading your other pieces.

Bevin said...

"He chose his attitude, and made his death into a song." What a beautiful sentence and aspiration. Great piece Hollis. (I had to reach for a hankie again.)