July 11, 2011

Flag Day

There have been many things I wanted to say but none of them deserved to be said until I had written something about Gammy.  The problem has been that I do not know what to say, which words are the most important to use.

She slipped away from us quietly on June 14th, at around 7pm.  She had not really been responsive since Saturday morning, when she was still making faces at the bitterness of the ativan and the morphine.  By Sunday, her breathing began to be labored and heavy, phlegmatic from the secretions which the hospice nurse assured us were a natural part of dying.  Though we were careful to keep her doses of morphine and ativan regular, it was difficult because in some ways, they didn't help.  Also, giving her this medicine when she was so out of it sometimes made me feel as if we were just drugging her for our own convenience.  Intellectually and according to the nurse, that was the best course of action--to alleviate any possible pain she might be having, and to help her rest easily in these last few days.

On Tuesday, we had all sat down to dinner around 6 maybe.  Gam's breathing had gotten slower all afternoon, and I kept looking over to where she lay by the window, every once in a while listening closely for the sound of her breathing.  After dinner, I went over to check on her, and the secretions from her throat had bubbled up as she breathed, foaming somewhat.  I took a paper towel to wipe it away, swabbing it until her mouth was free and clear.  All this time, I was watching her breathe.  It seemed to me that her breathing was slowing down, and she hardly made a sound anymore, quite a change from the past few days.  I pulled up a chair to sit by her, picking up her hand and holding it in mine even though it was like tepid rubber.  I wanted to take her respiratory rate, so I started watching the small clock on the table, but the second hand was broken. It twitched on the 1 for at least ten seconds before it moved on.

Mom brought me a mouth swab and a cup of water for me to clean her mouth, but by the time she brought it I already had realized that Gammy's breathing had gotten so slow as to be almost finished.  I put the glass of water on the table and turned to sit, watching Gammy breathe some more.  Mom stood at the foot of the bed and watched with me.  Her voice wavered as she said, "She's breathing really slowly, isn't she?"  My voice sounded strangled and weak as I replied, "I think-- I think this is the end..."  Her breath caught and hitched and she called my brother, my cousin Kirste, and GrandDad to come and see.  We stood around the bed, encircling Gammy one last time as we bore witness to her passing: for this was what I felt, that we were there to look upon her face in death and bear it up in our memories, to preserve the fact that she lived by remembering the moment when she died.

We were there motionless for a few minutes, then moved away as Mom and then each of us in turn took a moment to say our own personal goodbyes.  The sun was setting and the living room grew darker as the light faded from the sky.  We called the hospice center and they sent one of the head nurses, who formally declared the time of death when she arrived.

It was over and somehow, it was a terrible relief.  The burden of waiting and watching was lifted and replaced instead with an awful knowing that this was the end, that she was truly gone.

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