The Truth about Death

 My father’s head was tilted back against the reclining chair, leaving his mouth slightly open, light snores escaping him. All of a sudden, the room, which smelled strongly of antiseptic and bile, was completely silent. The strained breathing of my grandmother had stopped. I could no longer hear the steady beep of the heart monitor. Even my father’s deep breathing seemed to stop.

Instead, I heard something wet dripping onto the floor.

It sounded like rain; calm, slow drops, rhythmically hitting the floor.

The world stopped. I heard nothing but the steady dripping. Somehow, I knew that once I moved to see where the drip was coming from, it would all be over.

So, instead of moving, I listened to the dripping. I watched my grandmother’s thin chest barely rise. I directed my glance towards my father, hesitant to wake him, because I knew that once I did, it would all be over.

Finally, I took a deep breath and leaned forward to investigate the dripping. A pool of black bile had formed underneath my grandmother’s hospital bed, steadily growing larger as a stream of the bile escaped the pouch attached to her stomach, ran down the bed and dripped onto the floor. Resisting the urge to vomit, I shook my father awake.

“Daddy…”

He seemed to know as soon as his eyes popped open. After he saw the bile, he cursed, instructed me to leave the room, and then hung his head between his shoulders.

I walked down to the end of the hallway, where my mother was sitting, attempting to keep her emotions in check. She knew before either me or my father that my grandmother’s life was definitively ending. When we walked into her room that evening, my grandmother’s shallow, struggling breaths sent my mother into bout of tears, as she was thrown back into the last moments of her father’s life, when he was taken off of life support and he struggled to breathe on his own.

The photo above was taken right after I left the room, right after the nurse told my father that it was time to say good bye.

Two years ago, for my Tolstoy class, I read The Death of Ivan Illych, a story about the last few days of a man’s life. In the story, Ivan screams for three days straight before his life ends, but manages in his last days to have articulate conversations. My professor said that in medical school, students are often required to read this story because it is considered one of the most accurate depictions of what it is like to die. While I didn’t disagree, in some ways, I did not think that screaming in pain for three days was possible. It seemed unlikely that a person on the verge of death would still be able to converse with others, lying in the grave one day and back on earth the next. My grandfather, my mother’s father, didn’t die in this way. He simply stopped breathing. But my grandmother died in such a horrendous way, that I will never forget her last days as long as I live.

Three days before my grandmother died, I made the decision to visit her in the hospital by myself. She talked to me, joked with me, I helped her find cartoons to watch on television and then she asked me for her crossword puzzles, her favorite pastime. Delighted that she was able to have such a vibrant conversation with me, I took it as a sign that she was getting better. I promised her that I would run home to get her crossword puzzles and would be back before she knew it. By the time I got home and returned with my parents, only two or so hours later, she was beginning to slip away. When the elevator doors open when we returned, we heard screaming, which my father immediately recognized as his mother.

The screams did not stop for three days.

I would hear her screams in my dreams for months after her death.

The smell of bile haunted me.

Death seems to be always depicted as easy; someone closes their eyes and they fade away into the great beyond. They simply never wake up again. Or in action movies, they are shot so many times that they simply die on the spot.

But that’s not always what it looks like.

Sometimes, death is gruesome, painful to watch, disgusting, traumatizing. All you want is the other person to be out of pain and yet death simply will not come.

Death is the sound of bile dripping onto the floor, so quietly, so calmly that you almost mistake the sound for rain.

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