The Last Dance

Monday, February 20, 2012

On the Monday before Dave died (during a wee hour on Wednesday), I went shopping. Over the last couple of weeks prior, getting out for a few minutes for groceries, work-out, drugstore items or a little breather was difficult both emotionally and logistically. Over the previous week I had been looking for some stationery notes, something Dave could pen just a small “love you” to his kids, in his handwriting. I don’t know why but all I could find were flowery, girly cards. I suppose an index card would have work, but I had in mind a nice keepsake card that could be tucked inside the memory box I am having made. I didn’t have the energy to put some kind of card together myself at that late moment.

We had talked about this project long before, but the life and death and care factors got in the way somehow. The last week I could feel the pull to get this done. On Monday, I went to Hallmark finally, after having looked at several stores when I had other shopping to do. Hallmark did have the most acceptable cards, still not what I had in mind. Oh, well. I picked them up.

On that Monday afternoon I let Dave know I had finally found some cards. We could do them in the morning when he was fresher. As we talked about it, he surprised me with saying that he really just didn’t know what to tell me. He wasn’t sure he could express what I have meant to him in his life. This was the closest moment to him crying about his own mortality that I witnessed. (Boys, and especially Tulsa boys, don’t cry. He wanted to at varying points during his illness, but as far as I know he never cried. He never mourned for his own life.)

So he did his best to tell me but clearly not to his satisfaction. I was satisfied, yes, because we have lived many of the last years with me in the know about how he has felt about our lives (and vice versa). I had no doubt, nor need for reassurance. For that I am very grateful. So this was our moment of “good-bye.” I felt it then, I know it now. I thought we might have a few more days.

The next day, Tuesday February 14, was the true beginning of his end. From my unfinished journal that evening:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Valentine’s Day Evening

It’s like a holiday around here. Laughter. Family. Stories. It’s an open house. There are folks in every room – Bedroom. Family room. Living room. Kitchen.

At 5:00 this morning I was awakened by Dave’s coughing. I vaguely remember hearing bouts of coughing off and on in my sleep. I don’t know how long; I don’t think for long. Then an urgent cry for “help” rang out. I was around to his side of the bed reaching to sit him up before I knew what hit me. He gasped for air. I could feel and hear his panic. Sitting up was crucial.

Everything has changed.

I gave him some pain meds, calming meds from out of the “comfort” pack, provided by hospice especially for this time. I sent a text to Leah to call me. Fortunately, we had just talked last night about the phone tree. I call her. She contacts the others via text message. It was only 5:30. I still wanted to be polite and not call yet. But I did not want to be alone. I should not be alone. They all should be here, too. Now.

We sat for a couple of hours, well, I held him up for a couple of hours as his body leaned forward into an almost fetal position. I propped pillows all around us. Calls began to come in. Family would be gathering soon. I called Leah back. Can Scott come and help lift Dave back into bed? She sent him right away. At 6’5” he easily and carefully picked up Dave’s frail body and righted him in bed.

At that moment of writing, Denise, who had been sitting with Dave called out. “Joan, come here, his breathing has changed.” So Leah and I came in and sat with him. Yes, his breathing has changed to the raspier, heavier, gurgling breath of dying. The room and atmosphere was relatively calm. One by one, everyone arrived upstairs eventually. His children, their partners and even a few grandchildren. Individuals moved about the room, finding their position, I imagine we were trying to make sense of what might happen. How do you do death? Listening, talking, even singing. But after what seemed like a long while, it was clear that this vigil could go on for a long time. Or not.

It was by choice that all were going to their homes for some sleep, except the two oldest, Dawn, along with her husband Richard, and Dana who would stay the night. Then we would gather again in the morning. It was understood that Dave’s last minutes on this Earth could come through the night. Or not. But they did.

Dave had been moved into a hospital bed within the master bedroom that evening, (That was an all-family event to transfer him!) The hospital bed was shoved up against the end of the master bed for the night. I pushed the covers aside and fell asleep across the foot of the bed parallel to Dave holding his hand as I have done throughout his illness. I think it was just after midnight, maybe 12:30 when we went to sleep. I set the alarm for 4:00 am for another scheduled dose of pain medication.

I awoke at 2:30 am or so. Dave’s breathing was very heavy with some coughing. It was that same scary feeling I’d had in the early morning. He was gasping, but not so fearful and desperate. I sat long enough to determine that I needed to awaken Dawn and Dana. It had been such a short sleep I thought. They came to be by his side.

His breathing was difficult. For almost an hour he tried to catch his breath. It hurt to watch. Dying is so alone and so personal. “Profoundly personal” has become a recurring term in my vocabulary recently. This was profoundly personal. I really wanted it to end for his sake. I tried to reassure him with my presence.

Can’t we do something? Dawn asked. Get him some pain medication?

I prepared another 1/2 syringe of liquid pain killer along with delivering a drop or two of atropine for secretions. I figure it was symbolic at best and certainly wouldn’t hurt anything. And maybe help. Very slowly I added a few drops from the syringe vial in his mouth so he could swallow or absorb a bit at a time. I looked into his eyes to tell him we were doing our best to help. Try to swallow I’d urge, and give him a touch more, like feeding a little broken bird with a dropper.

He calmed very quickly. Maybe we all did. His breathing was not so labored. It seemed like an almost instant change to me. But I have no sense of time. In my mind it became just him and me. If the eyes are really the window to our soul, then I saw his. And we danced. The last dance.

Those few minutes, and I can’t really say how many there were, we talked. There were no words spoken aloud, he didn’t have any voice. But our mouths moved as we talked. Our eyes were locked on each other searching deep inside.

It was a reminiscent exchange to one we had a week earlier when he sat up in bed and waved to me, his eyes cloudy and his expression like that of a six year old playing with a stranger. I could see the child in him looking at me. I could see in his eyes he was elsewhere. First he waved with his wiggling fingertips, and watched me. I waved back with my fingertips in the same fashion. Then I made a parade wave with my palm, and he mimicked. We went through a few more gestures and I laughed. Obviously, he straddled two worlds. But now, in the last moments of his seventy two year life he was moving from one world to another. We carried on in a profoundly personal exchange, silently mouthing proclamations of love and protection. And even though it makes me cry to think about it, it simultaneously makes me smile, because dancing is joyful, and we had this last one together.

Then he disappeared. I realized his mouth stopped moving, the words were gone and his breathing was no longer. I said aloud that he was gone but I wasn’t convinced at first. No breathing. I can’t see it, I can’t feel it. Pulse? It seemed there were a few very slow sparks of energy. A bit more time passed and his life here was fully gone. 3:38 am, Wednesday February 15, 2012 PST.

*  *  *

What I know from this moment is that no matter how long or short of time on hospice, no matter how well I prepared for and anticipated Dave’s death, there is never enough time. There is something left unfinished, unsaid, to be done. There is always hope for one more minute.

We had the most incredible year of our lives together, this last one. It helps define the beauty and road of the path we traveled. Not everything was perfect by any means, but it was our lives. We grew together these past 32 years, 28 married. We learned about love, parenting, forgiveness and everything human. We discovered friendship, laughter, pain and sorrow. We developed independently and together. We were smart and dumb at different times. We were educated and intuitive. We completed each others’ thoughts. We had dreams reached and dreams unfulfilled. It was simply our lives, profoundly personal.

4 replies
  1. Kate L. Wall
    Kate L. Wall says:

    A remarkable account. “Profoundly personal,” indeed. Thank you for sharing all of this with all of us out here.
    I thought about you a lot this last weekend. I see you’ve somewhat caught your breath.


  2. Teresa Shattuck
    Teresa Shattuck says:

    Dear Joan ,
    Your account of those last bits of time was extremely touching. I’m so fortunate to have known Dave when I was a student. I’ve read all your posting. Thanks for sharing him every so preciously with us all. Thanks for sharing yourself. You’ve taught us something very special.
    Most sincerely,
    Teresa Shattuck


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