Over the years of being involved with dying, death, and loss I have noticed many of us have become kind of neat and clean, sanitized around death, removed if you will from the actual process of dying, the rawness of it. I am sharing this sacred journey with you all so we can demystify this whole dying process, normalize it, and bring death back to life where it rightfully belongs.
I had the opportunity, the honor, and the privilege to be with my brother Peter as he died. We found an artful way to honor his desire to die privately with his wife and meet the needs of family to say good-bye physically and spiritually as well as emotionally and mentally. In honor of my brother I left before his final breath but only barely.
Though his dying began some six years ago it was disguised by chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and bevies of drugs, however there was no arguing the fact he had begun to die.
When I picked Peter up at Vancouver International Airport May the 4th, 2015 his impending death was undeniably. He walked like a man of ninety on his last legs; his body was thin and weakened by all the treatment he had endured; his skin color was a kind of ill grey; and his facial expression especially his eyes told the real story of the physical pain he was hiding. He had great difficulty lifting his foot to step up even a stair.
He was enroute to the fifteenth floor BMT (bone marrow transplant) Ward at Vancouver General Hospital for intense chemo treatment and stem cell transplant – a cure – yet it was apparent to me through all his body was showing that the end was closer than most of us thought or were willing to accept. Though the intention was to cure him of cancer it looked to me that the treatment was actually going to kill him.
As the brutal six-day diet of chemo unfolded, his body took hit after hit – nausea, extreme bone pain, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and challenges you wouldn’t even want to think of or imagine. He continued to loose weight, his color was even paler, and he started to look even more like a dying old man.
We were assured by the medical staff though, that all of this was normal, that the chemo was doing what it was designed to do – kill the cancer so his recently harvested stem cells would have a chance to live in his newly cleaned out body. He would recover and live what was left of his life they said. Though Peter walked out of VGH in late June and is consider a medical success statistically, he never recovered. He returned to his home in Creston to wait for medical tests and results that would ultimately confirm his demise.
His quality of life was shit.
His email on September 2, 2015 summed it all up;
“Yo, bro! No idea where you are but perhaps en route from Singapore. Let me know when you are back.
Test results are in and not good. Mainstream medicine is washing its hands of me as far as treatment goes and shifting completely to palliative. Will be calling Mom et al to let them know verbally so please do NOT post anything to your FB or other media ‘til I have done that – thanks.
Take care. I love you Stephen, Peter”
The dying process was now formally on, and Peter went quickly. He was given two weeks to two months by the medical staff that typically over estimate life expectancy by 50%. I thought in my own mind two to four weeks. I changed some plans around and headed for Creston on September 14th arriving just in time to have some fun yet important chats with Peter before he died in the early evening of Thursday September 17th.
Here is what I saw happening to Peter in his last days of life.
I poked my head into room 18 at the Creston Hospital, the Butterfly Room for palliative patients, April, Peter’s wife and her sister Amy were there tending to Peter. He looked old, haggard, and grey. His thin body was propped up by pillows on one of those hospital beds that contort into many shapes and angels. His meager offering of hair was much like baby hair and white grayish in color. His checks were hollow, his body fragile and barely mobile. Each movement looked painful. His dinner was left untouched. He had tubes in his arms for painkillers and hydration. He looked like shit, God bless him. Though he was alive it was very clear death was close at hand.
He was present and able to talk – he did so with huge effort, mostly to keep his visitors at ease. By Tuesday noon talking was over, meals were a thing of the past, fluids done – his body was beginning to shut down. It seemed like he was collapsing in on himself. His color was even paler, breathing though steady was labored, and body movements were now performed with assistance aside from the occasional arm or hand movement. His lungs were struggling as fluids started to build up demanding more drugs to limit the congestion and pain. He had trouble clearing his lungs and gurgled a fair bit. Lots of gasping sounds and a type of toning.
I stayed most of the night, went home for a short nap and returned early Wednesday morning.
Though his eyes were clear and he was still ‘there’ not much else was functioning. Peter now communicated mostly with his eyes. Family arrived this day and the rooms was full of people, emotions, conversations, and visiting which began taking a toll on Peter as he did his noble best to greet family and well wishers with at least a sparkle in his eyes.
His body temperature was on the hot side so a cold wet towel adorned his head. His eyes were still clear and his body was more and more looking lifeless, no movement in his lower limbs, the rare hand gesture, and occasional facial gesture. Cheeks gaunt, feet puffy; color almost none existent, head and eyes becoming ever more still. His life energy was waning and his desire to be private with only a visitor at a time was being honored.
We took shifts sitting with him. The room was still and Peter slipped in and out of consciousness. Sometime eyes were closed, sometimes open. His breath was a little more erratic and I could still hear the rattle in his lungs. He, his essence, was in his body but only barely. He lay there leaning to his right motionless starring straight forward.
There was nothing more to do but love him, and wait.
Back home for a short sleep returning to the Butterfly room Thursday morning at 8:00 am with coffee in hand for April to an even more diminished Peter. Totally still now eyes deeply cloudy and vacant, no sparkle at all. Breaths slow, unpredictable, shallow, and labored. I felt as if I was looking at a cadaver. His body was barely alive. Peter, was nowhere to be felt.
April, ever present with him, knew better than most today was the day. The room had taken on a sacred and quiet tone and visits were kept short in honor of Peter’s wishes to die privately with only his wife at his side.
My last visit with Peter was around 10:00 am, just he and I. Face sunken and unshaven, a scruffy grey stubble, breath unpredictable and gasping, body absolutely motionless, and an eerie vacant look in his eyes, almost haunting in fact. I held his face tenderly in my hands, he was a little cool to the touch. Looking into his eyes searching for him, I saw only a body. Peter had already left. I kissed his forehead, said I love you and left him sunken, empty, and motionless.
I walked away from Peter for the last time. Looking back over my right shoulder I saw the hollow shell of a once vibrant, loving, and alive man. I smiled and cried at the same time, I knew him once.