Life. Then Strategy

Finding beauty in watching a loved one die

Four years ago today I watched my granddad breathe his last breath. I was going through some tough times; this sunk me lower. But spending much of the last few days of his life with him was an incredibly beautiful experience, and something I wanted to share with you.

At 89, my pa had lived a long, fulfilling life. I won’t go into detail here but he spent much of his childhood in Newcastle, his dad worked on the railway lines, and he used to study by candle light. He had one of those curious, insatiable minds and was a staunch believer in education. It led him to the world stage.

It’s hard to fathom but he lived through 2 world wars and the Great Depression. And, despite there being almost 65 years between us, my interest in the internet paralleled his adolescent interest in hamster radios.

Anyway, he’d had his share of ill health – his wife of 65 years, my nan, played an amazing role in helping him get back on his feet every time. He always bounced back. So when he went into hospital in early March 2005, I thought he’d be out within a week.

His decision
Unfortunately, after a week, his organs started failing. I couldn’t believe it. I’d visited him a couple of times but he was asleep and looking weak so we didn’t get to talk much. It was strange seeing someone so powerful, incisive and large (he was over 6’2″ and a big guy) in this state.

Then one afternoon, he decided he’d had enough.

I managed to get back into the hospital where the family had gathered and we said our final farewells. I’ll never forget him saying goodbye to my nan: “I can’t do it anymore for you. I love you.”

They were going to put him into palliative care and he would see his life out unconscious.

Not running
I was in shell-shock and felt really panick-y.

Surely this couldn’t be it? This was 2005 – something could be done, right?

I was a mess and when the adrenaline kicked in – fight or flight – my body was wanting me to make an exit.

Now, I don’t know what happened but somehow a bit of strength rose inside me and I decided that I wanted to be with him as he breathed his last breath. I didn’t want him to be alone – my nan, aunty and uncle were keeping a vigil bedside throughout this time and other relatives came in too – so I spent 8-12 hours a day at the hospital for the last four days of his life.

Damien Rice
A few weeks before this, I’d seen the movie ‘Closer‘ and developed an unhealthy interest in Damien Rice, the man who made the movie’s soundtrack. One particular song became the moodpiece for the final four days of my granddad’s life. I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Unspoken intimacy
So, they knocked my pa out and he was to sleep until it all ended. We’d never really had a physical relationship but I decided to spend some of this time massaging his hands, his feet. I gave him the odd cuddle. I stroked his arm. I rested my head on his chest. Every now and then he stirred. I don’t know what goes on inside your mind when you’re out like that but hopefully he knew we were there.

Rainy reflection
It was dark and rainy the last few days of pa’s life. I wrote through much of them. Thoughts, poems, stuff I wanted to share with him. Then I read it to him. I found it hard to stick at one theme – part of me wanted to celebrate his life but then I realised I didn’t know a huge amount about it, part of me wanted to just tell him why I respected and loved him… it was hard to focus.

The rhythm of a death rattle
The death rattle is the worst thing about watching someone die. On the one hand, you know your loved one isn’t in pain (finally) and the nurses take good care of them; on the other, this death rattle sound they make… it’s tough. Pa was taking these huge breaths in – gulping the air – then would spend 5-10 seconds rattling them out – like a rattlesnake. Then the mega pause. I counted the gaps. I don’t know why. I think it made me feel in tune with him. Sometimes 20, sometimes 30 seconds. Then another breath.

Wake up and Goodbye
Even two days into his un-consciousness, I didn’t really understand what palliative care was. I looked it up online and read stories about people dieing who waited for loved ones to arrive from a long way away, for special dates… and then…

Well, I think it was day four and my nan, aunty and I were going to head down from pa’s room for a coffee. My nan said goodbye and left the room, then, with my aunt and me on different sides of the bed, my pa opened his eyes, raised his head, looked at both of us, breathed his last breath and sank back into his bed.

It broke our hearts but it was so amazing.

A rite of passage
I still shed a tear for my pa from time to time but when I think about it now, his passing and being with him was my rite of passage into manhood. Every time he breathed, I visualised myself breathing his soul into me. I felt stronger for being with him.

Apart from getting married and having kids, the last four days of my pa’s life were some of the most special days in my own life.

I know this is getting a little long and personal but there’s one more thing I wanted to share with you: the poem I read at my pa’s funeral. It’s a mish-mash of stuff I wrote over the last days of his life. After I read this at his funeral, an elderly gentleman came up to me crying and said, “I wish I could have spoken to my dad like that.” I’m sharing this with you in case it inspires you to.

A poem for pa
When they came for you
You stood strong.
I thought a few more minutes;
I wished a few more days;
I want a few more years.

The son of a Novacastrian train driver,
You studied by candlelight.
Perhaps the flicker reminded you
Of the stars
Towards which you aimed.

Well, you can be content.
You achieved more than most.
And we finally even brought them back together again.
It took your anniversary but we did it.

There was never anything wrong with imperfection
But the way you built for the family was perfect.
I just wish I was an adult sooner
To tell you that ­
Before our conversations
Became the one conversation.

You did well, pa.
You stretched the years,
Gained a good ten or fifteen.
I thought you’d grab a few more.
I really did.

I wanted my children to meet you
But it will have to be through me.
Through the parts of you instilled in me:
The strength, the love, the vision,
The steady hand that leads.

I never wrote your life story
But now I write your death.
Every breath you exhale
I inhale.
I want all the strength that’s left.

I’ve seen your eyes dart,
Your head turn slowly
In what I felt was acknowledgement.
Your hand reached out a couple of times
And I grabbed it when it did.

My hands are open
My heart is yours
I’ll stay as long as I can.

It’s the least I can do
For one of the few
Who’s watched me boy to man.

Love you, pa. Rest in peace.

Photo courtesy Matt & Heidi.

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