He Did Not Die Alone
I've spent the past week going through WWII-era memorabilia from my grandfather. He died about 25 years ago, but this is the first time I'm looking in detail at some of the things he left behind: a pipe collection, old coins, a gold pocket watch, army dog tags, etc.
And, the memory of the day of his death returns.
You've heard the saying that everyone dies alone, but not my grandpa. I was there with him, holding his hand, the two of us alone, but together.
The Last Day
My husband and another couple had just returned from Cancun. I called my mother from Salt Lake City, 5 hours from home in Boise, Idaho. I then got the news that Grandpa had suffered at least one stroke, was in the hospital, and was unconscious. Rather than spending the night in SLC as planned, we left for Boise immediately. The fun from the trip was completely gone - the mood in the car somber.
I asked to be dropped off directly at the hospital, the other three headed home.
I'm so glad I went directly to him, since it's unlikely that he would have survived another day.
What I Found at the Hospital
The only person at the hospital was my grandmother, very distraught. I went immediately to Grandpa's room and found him laying in a bed, unconscious, hooked up to all kinds of medical apparatus including a breathing tube. I was told that he was in a coma.
Having read that some coma patients can hear, I choked back the tears, held his hand in mine, and told him all about our trip. I was surprised when he squeezed my hand at seemingly appropriate times, like when I mentioned something funny or asked him a question. I was reassured that he was hearing me and that I could encourage him back into consciousness.
The All-Knowing Doctors
While I was still talking to him, the news was delivered to my grandmother that he had little to no brain activity, would probably never wake from the coma, and if he did, would have extensive brain damage.
I had a hard time believing this since I felt that he and I had been having some kind of conversation.
To my amazement, my sweet, patient, loving grandmother threw her hands up in the air and stated adamantly, "Pull the plug! Pull the plug! He would never want to live this way. Pull the plug!" I loved my grandmother dearly, but at the time, I stared at her like she was an alien. I asked her, didn't she want a second opinion? The doctor said he had consulted with another doctor on the results. She kept repeating, "Pull the plug!"
I said to the doctor, "But he's squeezing my hand at appropriate times, I'm pretty sure he can hear me!" I was told this was a normal reflexive muscle movement and did not represent cognition. I didn't really buy that, but I had no medical training.
Where are the Reinforcements?
I quickly headed for the nurses' station phone and called first my mother who lived locally and was at work, then my aunt who lived in New York (my grandparents' two children). I was looking for some kind of back-up, some kind of delay, someone to reason with my grandmother, but what I got was reassurance that he had always been very clear on this subject, that he did not want to ever be a burden on anyone, and these were his final wishes.
I was in real disbelief. My thinking at the time was that, just because someone says that when they're alive and healthy, doesn't mean they would wish the same when they were clinging to life. And, I hadn't been in the hospital long enough to be assured that all heroic measures had been taken or how the doctors had come to their conclusion.
But, legally, my grandma had the final say, and she seemed to have no hesitancy at all.
Pulling the Plug
Shortly thereafter, I was asked to leave my grandfather's room so that all the tubes could be removed. I had a last hope that maybe he'd snap out of it and surprise us all. When the nurses were done, I was allowed back into the room. My grandmother didn't want to be there. So, it was he and I alone, yet together, again.
I begged him, politely (as I still held great respect for him), to not die, to please live, that I would miss him, and that I loved him so much - and he continued to squeeze my hand when I said these things. I was sure he heard me.
I kept talking to him until he quit squeezing my hand and quit breathing.
The nurses and a doctor finally came in, said he was gone, and asked me to leave the room.
Sad But Satisfied
In the lobby, I hugged my grandmother and told her he was gone. We both cried and cried. She kept repeating, "That's the way he would have wanted it." I called my mother and aunt back and told them also.
I don't remember much after that. I'm sure arrangements were made and everyone else stepped in to help at that point. I just went home and thought about my grandfather and how he had played such a wonderful role in my life - instilling in me self-esteem and being a good male role model. I remembered all the little things he used to say like, "You make that dress look very fine," and how he used to sing, "I like bananas, because they have no bones, and, how he'd make me jump with a cold can of soda touched to my bare back in the summer.
I've never felt anything spiritual about the moment he died - I've never felt him watching over me, but I do often stumble across memories of our times together that make me smile.
Although I didn't help with any of the funeral arrangements, I feel satisfied that I played, what I felt, was the most important role of all - being with him when he died. He did not die alone.