Friday, April 11, 2003

Death Wore a Nurse's Uniform

The night he died was the worst day of my life. He was my father and my mother, my friend, and role model in one, and my world was completely gone.

I'll never forget hearing the phone ring at around 3:30 in the morning, and even though I was heavily asleep, I knew that it had to be bad news. We'd gotten the phone call before, the "You'd better get down here now" phone call, and he'd always miraculously made it through before, so when I got on the phone with the doctor, I couldn't understand what he was trying to say. He was saying something about how he'd been in trouble, his heart sped up and they tried to shock him back into rhythmn, "We did everything we could to help him, and at 2:30 his heart stopped."

The doctor stopped there and waited for me to speak. I waited for him to start speaking again, to say, "...but we got him back into rhythmn, and he's resting comfortably." But he wasn't saying that this time. "His heart stopped." There had to be another sentence after that, why didn't he finish that thought? It seemed to take an eon for the meaning to sink in, and still, the next thing I asked him was, "What are you trying to tell me?"

I knew what he was trying to tell me, but the thought was too awful to contemplate. My mind went over into a weird place, where the only thing I could think about was how hard it must be for him to make this phone call, and what should I say to him, what is the right thing to say at this moment? Because he tried to keep him alive all these years, through all this sickness, and there must be a right thing to say. I started to babble to him about all these things, because I just couldn't fully understand what this meant. So much energy had been concentrated on dealing with each progressive step of his illness, coping minute by minute, that no thought was placed on what to do after the illness was over.

After babbling for a little while, I asked the doctor, "What do I do now?" The logical interpretation for this was the one he took, but I didn't just mean paperwork and funeral arrangement things, although surely I would be doing all that soon, too, but I meant WHAT DO I DO??? What do you do now, now that the suffering and waiting and visiting and handholding and worrying and bedsitting is over? I no longer had a life, except what little time surrounded the daily hospital visit and phone calls, so I had nothing at all to fall back on. "The patient's daughter" had been my only identity for so long, I didn't know who I was any more when his suffering was over.

Over the past few years, I had replaced his role as the head of the family during his periods of illness, and gladly relinquished the role to him again during his periods of relative good health. My whole life, Mom's illness kept her from playing an active role in the family, and my brother took every opportunity to escape the family gloom, except in the most severe emergencies, and at the end. That pretty much left me and Dad as the core of the family, the ones who kept things together, and I couldn't imagine life without him.

Going to the hospital to view his body was the worst thing I've ever had to do. The nurses, who had all grown to adore my Dad for his kind, good nature, were all gathered around the nurses station. They knew my brother and I were coming. It was early morning, and there were hardly any people in the hospital halls, but it wasn't an unfamiliar scene for us, having brought Dad to the hospital and having sat with him all hours of the day and night. We were used to the hospital, we'd become familiar fixtures there.

When the elevator door opened, all of the nurses heads turned towards the doors, and their sad eyes told us that they had been waiting for us. Some of them were already crying, and others started to cry when they saw us walk in. Even though we knew most of them by name, and I could tell that they adored Dad, I was surprised to see how upset they all were. But that was just like Dad, even getting the nurses who saw death every day to feel his loss personally. He used to talk to them about their lives and tell them jokes and listen to their problems, and he'd made a spot in their hearts, like he did with everyone who knew him.

I don't remember which one led us to his room, but I remember wondering what the poor man in the next bed was thinking, even though it looked like he was managing to sleep behind the pulled curtain. When we walked past the curtain, there he was. He looked just like he was sleeping, except the bed sheets and blankets were arranged entirely too neatly around him. There was no way that my father would sleep in a bed so neatly, fitful sleeper that he was. The most unnatural part of the scene was those damned perfectly tucked blankets. It must be true, I thought. He's really gone.

My brother and I hugged and cried, we touched his hands and said goodbye and told his body how much we loved him, and I remember thinking that maybe his soul was somewhere above us in the room, like those people who have died and come back who said they hovered above scenes of their death. Just in case his soul was there, I looked up and said, "I love you", and then I laid my head down on his chest as I'd done a million times before. Although he was still warm, there was an awful silence where I once heard his heart. Awful. Silence.

It was then that a nurse that I didn't like entered the room and spoiled our last moments alone. This ugly young nurse that had made it painfully clear over the past weeks that she had the hots for my brother, and although he had done his best to kindly deflect her advances and hints, she chose this moment of all moments to put her needs above ours. She came in crying a little, and told us how sorry she was for our loss, and then proceeded to hug each of us, but reserving an extra long hug for my brother. It would have been a nice gesture, had she done that to comfort us and then left. But she continued to hang around, talking, seemingly wrapped up in her own feelings about the moment, until it was clear that the only way to politely rid ourselves of her presence was to leave the room with her. We both seemed to misunderstand what was happening at that moment, and thought that perhaps we had overstayed our welcome (how could we? We'd only been there moments) and there was another person sleeping in the room. Maybe we were breaking a rule, maybe we were being rude, maybe we only had so much time and time was up? Maybe the nurses sent her in because they thought that we were morbidly lingering over his body for too long? I don't know what I was thinking, only that it was clear that she wasn't about to leave us alone with him any longer.

My brother and I discussed this event later, and we are of one mind about that incident. If only either of us had recognized that moment for what it was, a rude woman was intruding on our private grief as if she was an intimate of our family, we would not both feel so angry about it. Instead of telling this person to leave us alone for a longer time, we allowed her to insinuate herself into our only moment of goodbyes with our father. It might seem like the smallest matter, inconsequential in so many moments of grief and sorrow, but this particular memory brings up such an uncontrollable mixture of grief and anger, even after a dozen years, I want to go to the hospital, find this woman, and scream at her until I am spitting and throwing things and shaking with red-faced fury.

I don't do any of these things, because I know that it wasn't the ugly, selfish nurse who took my father away and cheated me out of years of life in his company. Years without his chest to lay my head on when life became too much, when he would soothe me with gentle words and his heartbeat. Years without his laugh and his stabilizing sense of logic and fairness to get advice from.

In my mind, the selfish nurse is the embodiment of Death, who cheated us all. And even though I know that it isn't really her that I'm so vicerally, explosively angry at, I don't know where Death is hiding. So if I see this woman again, I might just have to kick her ass but good, and tell her that next time she wants to make time with a grieving cute guy, she should at least wait until the corpse is cold before making her move.

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