He lay there. Or, more accurately, there he lies. Supinely displayed, softly defined and bluely lit. The crags and folds of his face still ruddy and his jaw now rigored slightly open .The right corner of his mouth closed but distended by memory from the breathing tube .The omnipresent white breathing tube, tooth scratched and stiff, the last inch accordion folded like a wide drinking straw. The breathing tube that replaced the nasal cannula .The breathing tube that led to the ventilator, and its display of fluctuating numerals, that illuminated blood gas levels of oxygen, in thin, blinking, fluorescent green percentages. His hands, palms down on the blanket ,bruised ,waxen and cool, un-held at the end , held now regrettably late. His passing, unemotionally witnessed by the nurse one hour earlier.
The nurses, sympathetically absent now after their final ministrations. The professionally empathetic and honest without brutality nurses. The nurses that would actively listen, patiently explain, and with their experience born wisdom, gently but directly present the concrete indications of his bodies failing support system.
”The pallor is due to Liver function issues”
“No he isn’t in any pain”
“The arms are swollen from the pneumonia”
The terminology and jargon solidify the arguments of the family members in favor of letting go and inversely raise the stubborn ire of the lone holdout. The decision to terminate all interventions comes amidst the mounting evidence of his bodies systems shutting down one by one. The one hold out accepts the decision and drives east for a final watch. After declining the invitation to spend the final night being ”convinced” ,he checks into the Southampton hotel, preferring to spend the night in solitude with his regrets and 3 cans of Guinness. Resigned but still un-persuaded he prepares for the 7: AM, horrible, tube removal, plug pulling, last gasping, convulsive pantomime of death by health care proxy, now a point made mute one hour ahead of schedule. The lone holdout, at that moment, just checking out and stepping into the mid September, season ending ripeness of ‘local’s summer”.
Walking east, passing the diagonally parked pickups that fill the spaces between the theater and Windmill lane. Passing the dungaree and work-booted members of Southampton’s labor force, all heading for takeout breakfast from Paul’s Pizza. The tempting scent of bacon lingering in front as the door opens and paper bags filled with aluminum wrapped egg sandwiches and coffee ,are carried to be eaten en-route.
He moves steadily up Jobs Lane, the stores closed, and the Presbyterian clock tower visible threw the branches, showing 6:30. Continuing on Meeting house lane, past the tall hedge hidden houses of the village. The cedar shake covered dormers and eaves barely visible except through driveway breaks and property boundaries. Then crossing Little plains and turning on Old Town Rd, stopping momentarily on the smoker’s bench. Courage gathered, moving through the swishing automatic doors, the antiseptic clean smell of the emergency room replacing the southwesterly, slightly briny breeze and the more immediate, syrupy sticky talc smell of the hedge-flowers.
Entering the now familiar trail of corridors, elevators and signage announcing the specialty of each compartment, X-ray, Nuclear medicine, Pulmonary, Nurses station, to the pressurized exhalation of room air as the door to ICU opens. On schedule but 1 hour late to express…… thanks? Love? Goodbye? The words to remain forever unspoken.
The actual last words were exchanged three weeks earlier, at the lone apex of his non recovery. The conversation a final gift and as it turned out, forever footnoted as the beginning of his descent into palliative limbo. That day, his eyes bulging open, blinking slowly , then lucidly relaxing ,followed by the the short ,searching , orientation questions.
“How long?” where am I?”
Reassuring joke attempted;”bet you could use a cigarette Jack”
He smiles, blinks, and then succumbs to the residual, post op barbiturates .The spark of false hope now ignited but within days exposed for what it is. A false victory balloon floated by the five horseman of managed death; denial, bargaining, anger, fear and the inevitable acceptance.
The phone at the nurses’ station is appropriated and news of the rally relayed to those of the less optimistic mindset. The clichés regarding what his perceived final wishes would be are not repeated and the accompanying submerged acrimony of the previous weeks is avoided. Those available gather in Bowden Square for dinner and a short respite from the ‘subject.’ The subject never directly referenced, but metaphorically sits at the next table, scythe, monks robe and skeletal fingers silently, invisibly, knowing that the nadir of Jacks recovery is fast approaching. Plans and availability are discussed. Renewed optimism segues into scheduled watches, not wanting him alone if he wakes again, but still projecting forward, the question arises .Would he be better off? Would we be better off? Un-spoken value statements regarding the already small existence his disabilities, alcoholism and partially shared burden the last 25 of his 64 years has been. He had, in terms of the rat race, quit. Life had repeatedly beat down and piled on, beginning with the death of his mother giving birth to him ,followed by the death of his brother; killed when his troop carrier was sunken by the Germans during a training exercise in preparation for D-Day. He became an orphan of sorts at 7 years old, when his father died in respiratory sanatorium from cumulative damage of mustard gas exposure exacerbated by years of firefighting in New York City.
Raised in the family of his father’s sister and mentored by his 2 surviving brothers on their return from WWII, he graduated St John’s, started a family and went to work for Eastern Life Insurance while moonlighting as a short order cook to save for a house. A corporate merger left him the odd man out and his un-employment coincided with both an economic downturn and the onset of a steadily worsening disability. It was diagnosed as an encephalitic “condition”. This condition, aggravated by Scotch and Lucky strikes, eventually left him spasmodically immobile. His balance was the main casualty, with the Parkinson like symptoms leaving him with limited control of his extremities. This manifested itself in scars from his many falls and a general atrophy that seemed to shrink him further as he aged.
With his family grown, the 2 family home in Queens was traded for a 2 bedroom ranch by Big Fresh Pond. He welcomed the move east; the staircase in Richmond Hill having become a border only crossed when he had help to navigate it. He had for the most part, traded a spot on one couch for a spot on another, but the house on Beachwood lane was modified for his acquiescence to the wheelchair ; a small ramp for the front door and a pleasant, scrub oak shaded deck, level with the rear one. Furniture aisles arranged to allow easy ingress and egress for his short trips up Sebonac inlet road to Bulls head. There he would sit at the guardrail, head covered by a Giants or Yankee cap, flannel and corduroy clad regardless of season, transistor radio tinnily tracking pitch counts, yards to go, or up to the minute weather and traffic from 70 miles west. Mom, seated low in a beach chair, steps away in the sand, reading the latest New Yorker or Southampton Press, together a side angled portrait of east End domestic bliss.
Twice a week they would have supper at Barristers. He liked the ground-level entrance and back alley feel. His chosen euphemism to describe the cuisine was “American” but he more enjoyed his Johnny Walker on the rocks, carefully rationed by mom, her own acquiescence to the suppressive effect it had on his shaking. This routine, augmented by visits from children, old friends and neighbors, was too good to last for a guy born without luck.
The end began one August morning with abdominal pain doubling him over on the couch. Emergency surgery removed a significant tumor in his colon followed by placement in ICU and a medically induced coma. He lacked the physical constitution and possibly the will to recover and he died on September 17 1997.
He was waked and cremated back in Queens and of his ashes were scattered over the guardrail on the end of Sebonac Inlet Road. The lone holdout visits him there often and swims with his memories of him.
Mom still brings her beach chair and New Yorker.