Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

The Day of the Dying
by Bernadette Noll

In the hospital I asked him, “Any regrets, Dad?” He had just gotten the news a few days prior that his cancer was back with a vengeance and had spread into his marrow. The prognosis was weeks to months. He pondered the question a minute, “I just wish I had been able to run the 400 hurdles,” he sighed. “But they didn’t always have that event back then.”

A few days later we brought him home to die. Dying at home meant life continued around him and was not paused in that lethargic, sickbay way. The meals could be eaten at normal times, the children could play instead of having to sit, waiting idly and sleep could actually take place at night without the buzzers and beeps of the hospital halls and the constant awakenings to find out if one is sleeping okay.

I was there for a visit at first; all the family was there. As the time came to leave, with my husband’s encouragement, I decided to stay -- it was summer, my parents’ house was big, my kids were little, and we had nowhere we needed to be. Living far away had been my cross to bear all these years, but now it felt my reward in that it gave me time again in my parents’ house -- nighttime swims in the lake with my mom, bedtime backrubs for my dying dad, quiet moments with him without the weight of visiting hour conversations, and intimate candle lit talks on the deck with various visiting sisters and brothers. When my brother returned home after a weeklong visit, he asked me if I didn’t feel burdened having to stay. No, in fact I felt gifted.

Right after the news of his fate, my dad called the reservoir where he had worked in water supply for over fifty years. “I’m dying,” he told them. “And if you have any questions, now is the time to ask." He knew, as did they, that in addition to the facts of the water and the dams and the methods, he had the history and the lore and other wisdom not in any books or files. A select few came and were loaded up with stories, maps and experience. Conversations were lucid and bright, shortened only by the physical exhaustion and he dismissed his guests clearly and succinctly: “Okay, thanks for coming. It’s time to say goodbye.” As each person left, they cried and hugged us, sorry for what they were losing, grateful for what they had received.

Several days before the very end, the quiet became more frequent; he had said what he wanted to say and so had we and we didn’t want to saddle him repeatedly with our thoughts of being left behind. My mom would ponder this later, wondering if she could have/should have said more, forgetting that in the end he was already departing, his spirit and his soul already taking leave and heading for the celestial sphere.

On his last day and night he was physically spent, unable to use those same legs that longed to hurdle. The visiting nurse had brought him a catheter condom, the very first condom he would ever wear in his life. That night as my mom and I were settling him in for sleep, the catheter got caught and pulled off.

“Oh no,” exclaimed my mom. “The visiting nurse put that on. I don’t know how to use those things.”

“I do,” I assured her, smiling.

“Oh, thank goodness. See, for everything I didn’t know how to do, someone was sent,” she gratefully observed.

My dad lay his head back upon the pillow and closed his eyes as I struggled with the medically jerry-rigged condom; all of us aware of a lifetime of modesty wiped out with one terminal illness. Trying hard to be gentle and even harder not to bawl at his incapacity at the end of a very capable lifetime, I got the thing rolled out and he smiled his 76-year-old, trademark, I’ve-got-a-joke-coming smile. 

“I don’t want to get your mother pregnant and then leave her,” he chuckled, still with eyes closed.

His weakness was increasing now by the hour. That morning he stood, that afternoon he sat, that evening he ate eggplant parmesan, and that night he was too weak to move his own body, which had slid too far down in the bed. My mom and I tried to hoist him by each grabbing an armpit, but we were fearful of hurting his now too thin limbs. I got up on the bed, straddled him and grabbed him around the torso. “Hold onto me,” I instructed. We held each other in a tight embrace and I hoisted his body up into position. Who thinks when we lift up our little babies, that one day they will be lifting us? We hugged each other a little tighter and a little longer.

In the kitchen my mom and I talked in a sad, hushed tone. How long can we physically do this, we wondered. Up until now it had taken no physical stamina, just time and care and pampering, of which we both had plenty. Up until that night, he had been weak but not unable, even sitting daily on the deck overlooking the lake. Now he was dying and we didn’t know how long it would be.

Overnight his decline continued at the same rapid pace. His breathing was labored and his eyes were heavy. We called those close-by. “Come now,” we told them, for now was all we had. And they came -- his children and some grand, his brother and nephews -- and we waited. We sat and held my dad’s hands and rubbed his legs and wiped his face with cool cloths and spoke through tears in low, calm voices.  All morning everyone was in and out of the room, the house, and with each entrance a new wave of grief washed over us. The little kids were there too, earnestly in and out of the room with their play and myriad cousins. Occasionally they’d forget death was at hand, only to solemnly remember. “Grandpa’s dying,” they’d announce in their serious, curious tone; half statement/half question.

On the porch the five-year-old picked up the baby from the playpen. We watched questioningly, as we would watch anyone removing a contented baby from a playpen. The five-year-old turned, gestured toward the baby with her head and informed, “She needs to see Grandpa.” The big sister carried the little sister in to sit with her dying grandfather whom she would know only from stories. I imagined a future conversation in which she would ask, “Did I know him?” and we would take out the one picture of her with her dying Grandpa, her face cupped by his tender hand, and I would tell her stories of the vibrant dad I had and the summer of his death.

The day went on, with food brought to the back door by neighbors who knew and felt the vibe, or who had heard from one of us across the fence. Some we left uninformed, unable to bring them in just yet, like the woman across the street in her robe, smoking on her front porch, “Do you know someone’s dying over here?” I wondered. I stared a minute, then waved and went back into the house.

Inside, the natural shifts of people continued as we held my dad and rubbed his feet and fed him a crushed Darvocet mixed with water. Like feeding a baby bird we put the syringe in the corner of his mouth and dripped it in slowly. Thankfully that was all his pain needed as he breathed on heavily, rhythmically. The little ones were in and out, peering through the screen door in their wet bathing suits, intrigued, entranced by this life ending. Throughout the morning they popped in randomly to check out the scene, feel the forces, look at the faces and marvel at the fact that all these adults they knew and loved were all crying together. And when they caught our eye our faces lifted through our tears and they marveled again that we could smile while we wept.

After lunch, a grandchild came out to the kitchen, “Grandma, his breathing is changed all of a sudden.” And indeed it had to a faster, shallower rhythm. Now we all came in together, including the kids, focused on the task of dying. We circled the bed and held my dad and each other, all linked around the room. My mom asked us all to release him, remove our hands from his body, stand silently, and let him go. His breathing stopped and this silence was met by the exclamations of a three-year-old boy with his fingers in his ears and his face in the couch, beseechingly calling, "CAN YOU HEAR ME? CAN YOU HEAR ME"? My dad returned just for a second, maybe to say goodbye to a grandson that wouldn’t remember. Then the stillness released him after all. His lifelong prayers for a happy, peaceful death were answered.

We cleaned him in a tender post-mortem bath, donned him in fresh white cotton, combed his hair and sat with him and with each other; grateful now for the uncle that told us not to panic at death but rather to linger in the passing.

As we sat, the sky darkened from blue to steel gray and the clouds opened and it poured the kind of rain that makes conversations stop at the futility of not being heard. We all exalted and the kids ran out in it led by their fifteen-year-old cousin and together they all raced across the lawn and dove into the lake. While the rain teemed down and my dad lay dead, we sat on the covered back porch to a meal sent over at the perfect time and a table magically prepared by someone, who knows, maybe us in our blind grief.

A few hours later we called and the funeral home picked him up. They admired the room in which he died; picture windows and glass door framing two different views of the water. They commented on the size of the crowd and at the kids in the room, and smiled appreciatively that this death was not lonely. The five-year-old stayed and watched as they wrapped her grandfather in crisp white cotton sheets, leaving only his face showing. They then placed his shrouded body in the black bag, zipping it up to his chin, again leaving his face. They lifted him ever so gently and sympathetically and walked out to the hearse followed by the five-year old who perhaps never again would think of death as scary.

The obituary read, “Dean Charles Noll passed away at home on August 3rd, 2003. His death was gentle. He is survived by the stories we tell."
Bernadette Noll is a freelance writer living and working in Austin, TX. New Jersey born, she travels back to the motherland at least annually, taking her husband and three children with her.  She is grateful for the lower leisure class existence she is currently living.