The doctors told us to depart for a few minutes while they began to remove Dad from the life support system, drugged him a little further and prepped him for our return, where we could behold nature taking its course first hand. Nature took its course while I sat in the waiting room and played checkers with one of my brothers, but I guess that didn’t count. It wasn’t as if I expected to see Dad flailing his arms around and gasping for air like some astronaut who’d just lost his oxygen supply, but you never know, and I didn’t want to be around for that. Just in case, I think we all prudently stepped out of the room because, I don’t know about you, this was a first for me.
While we were gathered in the waiting room, we received two visits, one from the doctor who had tried to save Dad that first day but was unable to unplug the clot, incapable of restoring some degree of normal blood flow to the brain, hindered in her efforts to supply the cerebrum with the oxygen it needs to survive. There was nothing she could do. Not for her or the priest who had been so nice the day before. The one who may not have slept well in that puffy rectory bed. He had returned at that moment to listen to Mom once again and provide us with some kind of support. He did his best.
Dad was doing his best too, though it wasn’t easy for him. We had just been called back into the room and I immediately realized that his life had been a lot gentler with that ventilator inserted in his windpipe. His mouth was now wider open and every ten seconds or so, or at least it seemed to me, he would draw in as deep a breath as his weakening body could. It would make a horrid and tinny sound. He was unconscious and pumped with enough drugs to dope a rock band, and I truly think he was not suffering, but struggling, he was, which kind of made sense. After all, he couldn’t breathe.
Mom stood for the most part right near his head. I stroked his arm, though I was somehow afraid to touch the skin of his hand. My other brothers and sisters sat and watched over like faithful soldiers next to their wounded general’s cot, or mourning dogs at the feet of a fading Viking, and only on occasion interrupted the serenity with a few seconds of tears or weeping.
The hospital had provided us with refreshments of all sorts, tea and coffee, soda, an assortment of chocolate and energy snacks, which I guess was a thoughtful gesture to help us get through the moment, but I was nagged by the idea that they were saying, “We’ve just removed your father’s life support system, treating you to a Twix bar is the least we can do.” And it certainly was, I just didn’t actually think they would go through with it. Since I am always one to take a person up on their offer, unless that means running me over with a truck, I poured myself a cup of coffee and went for the energy bar to help keep me going.
I offered some to the rest with the thermos in my hand, “Coffee?” between my Dad’s wheezing, but they declined. One brother, the medical expert of the family, more out of fear than fancy, handled his greatest phobia, death, by bombarding the nurse with some six hundred questions and she, God bless her, fielded them with the greatest of patience. I returned to stroking the sleeve. The room was chilly. The sky was was darkening outside as it approached seven in the evening.
We turned most of our attention to the screen on the other side of the bed, next to the nurse who was controlling the administrating of drugs to keep the stress levels lower. We watched like heartbeats rise to 125 then down to 90, then back up to 115, 120, 130, and beyond. Dad was sprinting around New Haven, Connecticut, through the Sterling Library, the Cross Campus, The Old Campus and Timothy Dwight. Forty or fifty laps he must have done so far, and his heart still pumped away. It’s a resilient goddamn muscle, you have to admit. They say it drums along about 2.21 billion times in a lifetime of 70 years. That seems pretty astonishing but when you think that a chicken’s heart thumps 2.17 billion times in just fifteen years, the figure appears more modest. That’s because chicken hearts fly at the rate of about 275 beats per minute, which probably explains why they are always so freaked out about everything, and certainly helps you to understand how they die so young. Dad’s heart marched on for another 18 years, so his total was closer to 3 billion. It appeared he was trying to break a record before the final bell.
I kept stroking his arm.
After about an hour and twenty minutes, he began to get quieter, which was a kind of relief, but also meant we were reaching the final stages. In addition to the drinks and finger food, the hospital had the thoughtfulness to disengage the sound on the electronic equipment, so that the long and merciless monotoned beep wouldn’t kick in, the way it does in the movies. You didn’t need that.
The screen still showed occasional spikes as if the heart were still softly tapping away, but the main nurse who had just arrived told us that it was just electrical charges inside the body traveling around the ghostly deserted roads. I kept stroking his arm.
My brothers and sisters and I and mom hugged each other again and then went up to Dad to say goodbye for the last time. At least in his presence. I kissed him on the forehead and was oddly reminding of the time my friend Tom did the same years before one New Year’s Eve after downing fifteen shots of rum.
The medical staff disappeared to leave us on our own. Then, little by little, the family peeled itself away from the room, before dad’s face got too white. I called my daughters and talked for a few minutes. When I got off, I saw I was alone in the room. The electrical charges had zipped away for good. Dad looked slightly stunned, the way deceased people can appear, I guess. I guess you never quite want it to happen. I went over and stroked his arm one more time. I hadn’t shed a single tear yet.