The Will To Live

The look on Paul’s face said everything that I knew but had not allowed myself to think about over the last three days.

Paul, the husband of my friend Jewel, was standing at my front door.  It was Friday evening, the darkness spreading early in the cold February night.  My house was loud and bright; there were people in the kitchen speaking loudly and a nurse in the front room with my mother.  Friends had brought over dinner and it was being heartily eaten by the five or six people huddled standing around the table. They were loudly talking, laughing and generally trying to forget the reason they were all gathered here.  If you didn’t look over to the sofa, you would never have known what was transpiring that evening.

But Paul did look.  Paul looked over to my mother on the sofa, with her oxygen tubes snaking out from under blankets, her gray pallor and breathing so loud he could hear it before he even knocked on the door.  The horror on his face said everything about what was really going on at my house that night.  We were on a death watch, and my mother was dangerously close to the end.

“Thank you so much for coming over, Paul,” I said, businesslike, trying to draw his attention away from the spectacle that was unfolding.  “I really appreciate you coming to pick up Zach.  I have all of his things together for overnight.  His toothbrush, his pajamas, his blanket, everything you’ll need.”  I paused.  “Thank you,” I said.  “I don’t even know where to start.  Thank you.”

Paul’s eyes slid from the figure on the sofa to me.  Warm sympathy took over the frozen stare as he composed himself.  “Of course,” he soothed calmly.  “As long as you need us to have him, we’re happy to do it.  Just give us a call tomorrow and let us know how it’s going.”

“I will,” I promised.  “I’m sure we’ll know by midday where we’re at.”

“I’m so sorry.”  Paul gathered me into his arms for a warm hug.  I had heard the words so many times in the last few days that they hardly seemed real anymore.  “I wish there was something more I could do.”

I pulled away from Paul and touched his sleeve.  “I can’t thank you enough for helping me out with Zach.  This is obviously not a good place for him to be right now.  I don’t want him to see any more of….this.”   I turned slightly, seeing the hospital bed, the table full of pills, the portable commode in the center of our living room.

I went to retrieve Zach from the crowd in the kitchen and told him excitedly about his nighttime adventure over Uncle Paul’s apartment.  He smiled at me as I zipped up his warm winter coat, oblivious to the fact that this was the last time he would see his grandmother alive.

The nurse on the sofa beckoned me over as I closed the door.  “I honestly don’t really know how she’s still here,” she told me in between my mother’s bursts of loud, mucous filled breathing.  “She is having a lot of episodes of apnea, she’s not eating or drinking anything and she’s barely responsive.   Is there something she could be waiting for?”

“She keeps asking when her brother is arriving.  Every time the morphine wears off, she asks if he is here yet.”  We’d all been wringing our hands for days over the fact that my uncle had waited so long to get on a plane.  He lived in Los Angeles, and we’d called him two days ago with the word that my mother had taken a significant turn for the worse.  Finally, earlier today the word came that he had been able to get a seat on a red eye flight overnight tonight.  He and my aunt would be arriving at some point late tomorrow morning.

“Ah ha.  That must be it,” the nurse nodded at me.  “I have seen it before.  Patients will themselves to live for a person to arrive or an event to happen or something specific, something tangible.  It sounds crazy, but the will to live is a powerful force.  I would say it’s pretty clear she’s waiting to see her brother.  When’s he going to arrive?”

“Tomorrow morning,” I answered.

“I’ll be by the phone.  It could happen tonight, or she could make it until he gets here, I just can’t say.  But you know the drill, right?”

“Call you first.  Don’t call the police until after she’s passed.”  This was Hospice protocol.  Even with an Advance Directive for no heroic measures, Hospice recommended that families wait to notify the authorities until after the death.

My sister came in from the kitchen.  “Everything OK?”

I laughed aloud.  Everything was about as far away from OK as I’d ever seen them.

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