‘til Death Do Us Part: Saying Goodbye

Charlie was in his late 80’s, his wife Elizabeth about the same. A massive stroke had rendered Charlie speechless, unable to communicate in any way and also unable to move much of his body. There was no real chance for a meaningful recovery. Elizabeth made him a DNR, do not resuscitate. They had lived an entire lifetime together. “No heroic measures, please”. We kept him comfortable. And then a few hours later my coworker called me over to Charlie’s bedside. His breathing changed, he took very deep gasping gurgling breaths at a slow rate. He didn’t look uncomfortable, it just sounded awful. His blood pressure was very low and his heart rate had slowed down to about 40 beats per minute, normal is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. We knew he was dying. The chair at his bedside was empty. Where was Elizabeth? She went to the hospital chapel to say some prayers.

I went to the chapel to escort Elizabeth back to the intensive care unit. I found her sitting in the second row, deep in prayer. I leaned over and gently touched her forearm, letting her know she needed to come back upstairs, that “it won’t be long now”. People know what I am saying without having to really say it. The touch I use, the tone of my voice, the purposeful eye contact that lingers a bit longer than necessary. She stood up with the help of her cane and the back of a nearby chair and I patiently accompanied her to the back of the chapel. To say she walked slowly was an understatement. I realized she was doing the best she could. I couldn’t help but think “Hang in there Charlie, she’s coming”; as if I was willing him to still be alive when we got there. When we finally arrived in the intensive care unit, I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the monitor in Charlie’s room was still on, he was still alive. His heart rate was down to 32 and his respirations are now these quiet little fish-like breaths that don’t really move much air in and out. It won’t be long.

Elizabeth slowly made her way over to the left side of the bed, touched his left arm, took his hand in hers, leaned over the side rail and gave him the gentlest kiss on his temple. She did this without ever taking her eyes off of his face. The face that looks so beautiful to her. And then she said “It’s okay Charlie. I’m here now. I just said prayers for you. You can go now. It’s okay. I’m here. I love you.” And literally his heart stopped. Just like that. It was that easy. He waited for her, and then he simply left. Charlie had probably waited for Elizabeth many times over the years; changing outfits, finding the right handbag, finishing her makeup, forgetting her lipstick, grabbing the casserole dish, just a few more goodbyes at the end of a party. One last time he would wait for her, and then he left. And she let him go. One of the most beautiful deaths I have had the honor to witness.

“What a caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly.”
– Richard Bach

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