By Sheal Mullin Berube
The sun has already gone down, it’s around 10 o’clock at night. I knock on the door knowing the family, my second family, will tell me again that I don’t have to knock.
I am greeted by familiar faces I’ve seen twice a week for the last four months. I can already tell it’s been a bad day for them and their dying loved one by the looks on their faces. They don’t have to say anything, they know they don’t.
I can read them and they know that too.
I first ask how they are feeling, I always ask them this first thing. His daughter’s lip trembles and a tear rolls down her face as she expresses how scared and helpless she feels. I reassure her she is not helpless, she is sacrificing so much for her father to be comfortable in his own home. I tell her that her feelings are real and valid.
His wife is weary and tired looking. She is nearing the end of her ability to cope but smiles softly anyway as she talks about old times and good memories. It’s the good memories that make my heart sing, watching how their faces change and their eyes light up when they remember him as he was then and not how he is now.
We small talk for a bit, it helps them cope. Then they head on to bed for the night. I walk up the small flight of stairs and check on him and that’s when I frown and sit by his bedside. Diligently and on high alert, I match his breathing, this isn’t good. Shallow and short means it’s not going to be a good night. I watch the short rise and fall of his chest, so thin and fragile now. I marvel at the fact that the girls have told me this used to be a man well over 250 pounds. He looks all of 100 pounds or less.
His eyes flutter and his breath sputters. I hold mine and wait patiently timing the seconds in between breaths. The smell is different in the room tonight, I recognize it right away. I know what it is. I have smelled that smell before with others I have been bedside with as they passed. It is the smell of impending death, it is coming and fast. Most people don’t think that death has a smell, but I know better and the families that I serve know better.
It is distinct, not harsh or strange. Somehow comforting in a way. I touch his hand, it is not quite cold but not warm either. His eyes flutter again and a small smile creeps across his face. I am humbled by this show of recognition and gently whisper that I am there and it’s okay.
As I sit there I feel like time has somehow stopped, been put in a loop of sorts. The unsteady rhythm of his breathing starts to slow down. The seconds turn to minutes between breaths. It is time, time to wake the girls and hold on tight for them. To weather the emotional cyclone that is about to hit this household tonight.
I softly knock on his daughter’s door. She whispers if it’s time yet as her eyes search mine. I nod softly, tell her I’ll go get her mom as she whisks by me to her father’s bedside. Her mother is already halfway out her bedroom door having heard our whispered exchange. I nod toward her as she searches my face for how bad it may become, questioning me how to handle this without words. My heart breaks, I do not have that answer for her.
She grabs my hand and squeezes it, still searching for some sort of answer to why. I reach up and wipe a tear from her face and gently lead her to his doorway while putting an arm around her. She leans her head on my shoulder and is quiet for a moment. Suddenly, as if she has found her answers, she moves into the room and sits by her husband’s bedside, taking up his hand to hold it.
The minutes are getting longer between breaths. His chest rattles and then settles. Time stops again as all three of us hold our own breaths, counting, waiting. His daughter begs to wait a little longer, just wait and see. His wife shakes her head and reaches across him to take her daughter’s hand. I whisper I can call the doctor for you and do they need anything from me right now.
She whispers thanks and I leave the room to give them privacy to grieve together. I call their doctor and tell him it’s time to come here, I believe he has passed now. Doctor tells me to tell the family he will be there very shortly. I go into the kitchen and get two glasses of water while looking out the kitchen window. I swallow hard, swallowing down the lump in my throat.
Pushing it down with the grief and sorrow. Biting my lip to keep from breaking under the emotional strain. I must be strong for them. I must not break or they will not have a stronghold to turn to. They were strong for him, now it is my turn to be strong for them on his behalf. I made a vow, a promise and I intend to keep it.
I take a deep breath, slowly blow it out and shake it off. I can cry later like I always do. Later, when the family is in their safe haven, when I know they don’t need me anymore. I grab the two glasses of water and head up to his room.
I grin as I am surprised by the smiles on their faces through the tears. I tell them what the doctor said and they thank me as I hand the glasses over. His daughter catches me off guard throwing her arms around me saying thank you for making his passing so peaceful and easier to handle while her mother nods in agreement.
I ask if they want me to stay and that I’ll stay as long as they want me to, even after the doctor comes and goes. We stand there huddled together at the foot of his bed in silence, time stood still, waiting and counting the seconds when time will move forward slowly again.
The dawn is breaking slowly on the horizon when time starts moving slowly again. The doctor has come and gone. The girls have dismissed me with warmth and thanks. I sit here behind the wheel of my car. I have kept my vow, I have stood true to my promise. I nod and take one last look at the house I have called my second home for four months, twice a week.
I look at the clock, it is 7 in the morning and it is getting brighter out as I slowly turn the corner at the end of their street. I am changed, inside. I am different. I have grown from their lessons of sacrifice and selflessness. I am better because of them and I am grateful for it. I whisper goodbye as their house leaves my rear view mirror. I will miss them but will never forget them.