Monday, February 14, 2011

So Long, Farewell.

Leaving work at the end of the day can be a very strange experience when you work with the dying. You never know if you are saying a casual, friendly "goodbye" or THE "goodbye." The one that means forever. It can put a lot of pressure on what is usually a pretty simple part of daily conversation.
Usually, when there is a chance the patient won't still be alive in the morning,  they aren't in a state to really seem to care if I am in their room at the end of the workday, much less what I say to them as I leave it. If the patient is able to tell me goodbye, chances are, I'll see him in the morning.  Then one day a patient told me goodbye, and I was pretty sure there was a good chance that he actually wouldn't  still be my patient the next day.
I had this feeling because, as I left his room, telling him I hoped his night went better than last night (he'd been anxious and had trouble sleeping and became fairly confused as the night went on by the time of my visit, his thinking was quite clear). He glanced toward me, where I was standing by his door, and stated, plainly, "Oh, I think it will be better. I'm probably going to die tonight, so I doubt I'll see you in the morning."
He didn't say it with drama, or as if he were waiting for some kind of "oh, don't be silly, you're going to be fine" response. He said it as if it were fact. Simple, known, fact.
The sky is blue.
I will die tonight.
You will not see me tomorrow.
It caught me off guard, and made me smile toward this sweet, gently man, who had often said things like, "this isn't living, this is existing" and "I never thought it would end this way for me."
He had become so sad by the fact that he couldn't just will himself to die and that it actually was taking his physical body so long to shut down and release him, that I truly hoped he was right. It was as if this were his last remaining wish, to simply die. To die before he could feel himself growing any weaker, any less vital, less mentally sharp.
The perfect ending to this story would be that I walked into work the next day and was told that the patient had died. That he had fallen asleep peacefully, with his wife at his bedside sleeping on the pull out bed in the room, and that, as they held hands, he had calmly and peacefully taken is last breath.
I'd almost convinced myself that this would be the actual ending.
So when I walked into work the next day, and saw that he was still alive, I felt sad. I wanted the perfect ending, the poetic outcome.
Instead, there were six more days and nights that this man existed through (he definitely wouldn't have liked it to be called "living"). He hardly had the energy to speak, and for his final few days was in a state of being unresponsive to his family. His lovely wife, to whom he had been married for over 50 years, was there with him the whole time. The morning before he died, I walked into his room and she was sitting next to him, holding his hand, crying quietly. His time was clearly drawing close, as was their life together.
Finally, later that afternoon, he did die. His wife and son were there with him. It wasn't the perfect ending he'd wanted, but he was comfortable and peaceful and surrounded by love. And I was happy for him to finally get what he'd wanted.