Yesterday was a tough day, as I learned from a friend that she was afraid her husband, also a friend, might be dying. Just a few days ago, he was taken from the rehab center where he is undergoing physical therapy to the hospital, then put in intensive care. His breathing is labored, fluid on his lungs makes it hard to get enough oxygen in his blood, he is in renal failure, and he slips in and out of conscious coherence. My wife and sister-in-law and I went to the hospital to see them, but could only see her because our arrival did not coincide with extremely limited visiting hours. But we took her to lunch and talked and listened and tried to make the best of an awful situation.
Today, my friend sent me a text. No longer was it just her fear; the doctors had as much as said they were doing all they could, but it would be just a matter of time before either the heart, the lungs, or the kidneys would give out completely. They suggested moving him, when he is stable enough, to hospice.
When I got the text, I tried to respond, but my attempt failed; I was in a “dead zone” in which I could receive an occasional text, but mine could not be sent. So I left my pottery class and headed to the hospital. I saw her sitting outside the front door on a bench. Just as I arrived, another friend drove up. The three of us went out to lunch to escape the hospital; again, visiting hours had just ended and she had not been allowed to stay.
She talked about his condition and what she was doing to plan for the inevitable. She is remarkably strong, in light of the circumstances, but there are cracks in that steel case. She listened to a voice message from his granddaughter that came in while she had been in ICU earlier in the day; it caused her to tear up. She played it on speaker phone. These are not the exact words of the voicemail, but they are close, I think:
“Grandma, please tell grandpa I love him. Could you play this message on speaker phone for him? Grandpa, I love you. Whatever happens in the hospital, whether it goes well or not…I just want to let you know you’re the best grandpa I’ve ever had…I love you so much (here, she breaks into sobs)…oh, maybe you better not play this for him. But please hug him for me. I love you grandma…(more sobs) goodbye.”
She explained that he wasn’t even her natural grandfather but a grandfather by second marriage. My friend and her granddaughter weren’t the only ones in tears.
Back at the hospital, sitting in the waiting room for an hour, we talked more about he she was reacting and what she needed to do. His sons were on the way, and one of her daughters was heading in to see her, too. I offered a place for anyone needed a bed; she said she might take me up on it, especially for a memorial service, as there will be more people than she has beds.
She said one of the doctors spoke of his condition like this: “It is as if he is surrounded by wolves. We can ward them off with a barrier for a while, but it won’t be long before one of them breaks through and takes him.”
At the commencement of visiting hours, I accompanied her to see him. Only immediate family is permitted in the ICU, so I was to be his brother if asked. When a doctor dropped by to check on him, I was introduced as his brother. When we got to his area (a tiny room with one solid wall, two glass walls, and a sliding glass door (that was open) onto the nurses’ area in the center of the unit), we saw that his eyes were closed. He had on an oxygen mask, which made it impossible to understand him, but after a couple of minutes a nurse took it off, advising us to watch the monitors and to call her if the oxygen sensors detected a significant drop.
His wife woke him up with her greeting. His eyes opened and he looked around, seeming to be a bit confused. But he quickly became coherent and aware. Once the oxygen mask was off, he knew who I was and thanked me for visiting. And he made it clear that he was thirsty. “Water. Water!”
The nurse asked him, “Are you thirsty?”
“When she slipped the straw into his mouth and he had been able to suck in and swallow some water, he paused and said, “Water. Cool, clear water.” Then he took another few sips. And then he said, “Vodka. Cool, clear vodka.”
He was most definitely feeling better! His sense of humor came through loud and clear, even though he was bed-bound with wires and tubes in every orifice and beeping machinery surrounding him.
We chatted for a bit, but it was clear to me he was very tired, so I decided to leave. And his “sister,” actually a friend of the couple, was waiting outside to see him. I thought it best to let people see him while he was feeling awake and a little alert.
I left. And I thought to myself, “The last two days have been tough. ”
But what’s a little tough for me is life-changing and traumatic for them. And life-changing may not be the right term; life-ending could be the term, but I wish it weren’t.