Papa Was a Rodeo

What I wanted to do last Saturday was turn off my phone, take off my bra, crawl into bed and binge watch Netflix. Instead, I showered, got dressed, and headed back to the hospital for the third day to watch my grandfather die. 

I didn’t know death was so slow when the body was weak and the mind was willing. When we heard Papa had a large bleed inside his skull that was already compressing his brain and would eventually compromise autonomic functions like breathing, I sat by his bed watching him anxiously. Was this his last breath? Was THIS his last breath? 

The cavalry had arrived over a course of hours the first night he was in the hospital—Uncle Larry from Norfolk, Uncle Chuck from Powhatan, and then me, my mom and my brother from just a few blocks away. This was basically the same crowd that sat with my grandmother Baba exactly 4 years ago when she died. She died quickly—it was less than eight hours from the time we knew she was dying until her last breath. She waited for my cousin Charles to arrive and died half an hour later, with all of us around her laying hands on her. She was being released from a long struggle with Alzheimers. It was beautiful and terrible. 

But Papa seemed to have trouble letting go. He hung on for three days. He did death in his own way and on his own time, like he did everything else. And dying looked at times like such hard work! On the second day, I didn’t want him to feel anything. I wanted him to be totally numb and unaware of the transition he was undertaking.

As a doula, I know what normal birth looks like. I know that being totally numb and unaware of the transition is never the best thing. I know that sweat is ok. I know that moans are excellent, and as long as they are low-pitched and don’t sound like screaming, they show the birthing woman is in the zone, working hard. I know that you don’t always need medication for pain, but that if pain crosses into suffering, then you do. And I know how to tell the difference between pain and suffering even though sometimes both involve rocking and swaying, furrowed brows, clenched hands, and pleas for relief and insistence that it is too hard, that she can’t do it. I know how to let women decide for themselves how much pain to endure and how to support their choices. I know how to reassure nervous partners who are watching their women without knowing what’s normal, what’s dangerous, when it’s time to sit and rub her back and when it’s time to call for help. I know how to hold space for the new soul and the new family and the woman who is working so hard. I know that certain sounds mean the baby is coming soon, and certain sounds mean we have a very long way to go. 

On day 2 of the bedside vigil, I couldn’t keep it together because he looked like he was working so hard to die, that he wanted to but just couldn’t quite pull it off. I don’t know when a fine sheen of sweat on the forehead is normal, when labored breathing is expected, when a grimace results from gravity pulling the aging cheeks down and when it is caused by poorly managed pain. I don’t know how to tell if we are close to the end or far—I can’t make even that blunt distinction between days and hours left. I don’t know when cold hands and feet need to be warmed with extra blankets and when they need to be accepted as another sign that body systems are slowly shutting down. I am not as sure as all the hospice nurses that he hears everything we’re saying, that he doesn’t mind the joking and irreverence surrounding his death bed (though the last thing he laughed at was a crude joke about sperm banks, which is evidence that he was listening and enjoying it). 

I don’t know if the years and years when I was in close, attentive contact makes up for the months when I wasn’t. I don’t know if he forgives me for when I didn’t call or visit; I don’t even know if he remembers when I did. I don’t know if visiting him almost every day when he was in rehab in Richmond offsets not visiting for six months when he lived at the beach. He was sometimes angry at me for not calling more (sometimes fairly, sometimes because he didn’t remember I’d called), I don’t even know if he wants me at his deathbed for three days or only wants the most loyal.

I don’t know why this is so hard and so sad when he lived a full life and has told us for years that he was ready to die. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. He just couldn’t pull it off. Until last Saturday when he suddenly did. 

I don’t know how many deaths you have to attend before you know as much about what to expect from death as I know about what to expect from birth. By the third day, I was at peace with the reality that dying was sometimes as hard as birthing, and that it was our job to witness and keep watch; it was the hospice nurses job to prevent suffering, and it was his job to actually do the work of dying. And he finally did. And it was beautiful and terrible.