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Friday, December 5, 2008

The Pale Horseman Visits

The past several weeks have been really strange. I suppose others go through this with the death of a parent, but it is different when it you, yourself.

I arrived at my father's bedside late on Sunday afternoon. He had been declining over the past several days, and was now semi conscious. I had been told that the last sense to go is hearing, so while my Dad appeared unresponsive, I talked to him and told him I was here, complained about the snowy roads, and asked him if he needed anything. He said softly "No". I think that was his last word.

The next day he was even less responsive. His irregular breathing became gasps with periods of no breathing at all, followed by another set of gasps. The medical care givers said that it wasn't distressing for the patient (and how would they know?). Whenever I or my Mom spoke in the room, his body would shiver, like he wanted to respond, but he didn't. His eyes were shut or slightly open, but not moving or blinking. Each night, a care taker would come and sit with Dad so that Mom and I could sleep; she had instructions to get us up if something was happening.

Tuesday was more or less a repeat of Monday. He still shivered and jerked when talked to, still gasped his breaths and hung on. Each day a hospice nurse would visit my parents and examine my Dad, and talked to us afterwards. He said that my Father probably had less than 24 hours left, and called a minister who came and gave what could best be described as a Protestant Christian version of the last rites, and anointed his forehead with oil, which made him jerk and shiver. My Dad was not to my knowledge religious, except I think he believed in God, because my Mom had said how angry my Dad was at God for the death of my sister aged 13. How he felt and what he thought about being anointed with oil and prayed over is a mystery. My impression was that he was not pleased.

On Wednesday morning, his breathing became very shallow with long halts between breaths. He was totally unresponsive to sound, light or even touch. We both told him that he could go, that I would look after Mom and that she would be alright. There was no reaction.

At 11:40 am, his mouth suddenly closed, his breathing normalized, his eyes opened and he looked up and to the left. Suddenly he was fully present and alert, but couldn't talk or move. What was he seeing? My Mom thought he seemed surprised. I didn't sense that, but it was clear that something was happening. Then he just seemed to fade out, like an old TV turning off with the dot shrinking to the center of the screen.

My Mom tried to close his eyes, thinking he was gone, but they kept opening again. I could see he still had a pulse in his neck, and kept trying to wave her off (I didn't want to speak - I couldn't think what was the right way to say "no, he's not dead yet", especially if he could hear and understand me). We held his hands and waited.

At 11:50 am, his breathing slowed, and stopped, and the carotid pulse became thin and faded out. He was gone. Or had he left his chrysalis 10 minutes before? I had heard that people in a near death experience reported looking down on their body from above. I looked up and around, but could get no sense of him up there. I hope my sister came to get him, and they left together.What did he see when he became lucid? Was it the tunnel of light? Was it a sudden realization that here comes death now, then nothingness? Did he leave his body behind and go somewhere else? Or merge into a universal consciousness?

I am thankful that his passing was not sudden and unexpected from the purely selfish standpoint that I had time to tell him I loved him, and there were no major unresolved feelings or issues left behind (there are always minor ones). I am sorry it was long and sometimes painful for him, and exhausting for my Mom.

I still think, several times a day, "What did he see"?