Friday, November 21, 2008


The room smells of roses, disinfectant and urine. It was obviously used as a study prior to its current incarnation as a sick room, a room in which to die and bring a life to a gentle denouement.

The wooden shelves that cover two complete walls are filled with books of poetry, fiction, history, art, architecture, and a few select biographies. The windows, covered with crystal-clear plastic to keep out the bitter Nova Scotian winds, look out onto a dry plain of snow, bare trees and lonely winter grass.

A woodstove in the corner burns with seasoned oak, birch and cherry harvested several years ago in the forest over the distant hill, trees that the dying man himself selected, felled, transported, split and stacked with the willing help of family, neighbors and friends.

His desk, a large roll-top affair adorned with one of those green-shaded lamps one might see in a New England antique shop, stands closed, quiet, and unproductive. Once the center of furious activity----writing, bill-paying, calculating and contemplation, it is now a relic of a life that has reached its pinnacle and is inexorably sliding towards death.

Where once the file cabinets and large bureau were covered with the detritus of an active intellectual and physical life, most every surface is now adorned with bottles of saline, syringes, clean towels, liquid soap, hand sanitizer, catheter supplies, morphine.

Laying beneath a set of blue flannel sheets and a thick comforter gifted to him last Christmas by his daughter-in-law, he listens for sounds of life downstairs. This second floor is unbearably quiet, and he tires of the tip-toeing and whispering that seem to be de rigeur as the family comes to grip with the inevitability of his demise. He had asked them to stop being so careful, to fill the house with sounds of life and laughter, but a funereal pall has fallen over the house, and he has succumbed to his family’s overarching discomfiture with this wholly natural process. He yearns for his grandchildren to come back for another visit, assuring him with noise and the confirmation that life will certainly go on without him.

Too tired to talk or write, he simply lays in his bed, allowing the home health aides to turn him every few hours to prevent bed sores. His eyes ache when the lights are too bright, but he feels unnervingly lonely in the dark. When his wife lights candles each evening at dusk, the room fills with a comforting glow that lulls him to sleep, and the CD player soothingly spins Satie, Chopin, and Debussy.

Despite occasional nausea, he waits for the smells of soup and coffee and baking bread from the large kitchen on the first floor. These smells, although sometimes irritating, simultaneously fill him with a sweetly sad longing for a life on the wane. No longer eating and taking only minute sips of water or ginger ale, food is now like a dream, a fading memory awoken by the wafting odors that curl around the staircase like smoke, snake through the hallway, and send finger-like tendrils to caress him in his narcotic reverie.

He feels his breath slowing, knowing full well that the hours are coming to a close, that the proverbial clock has run its course. He would like to hold on for the weekend, for family members to return, but he feels himself fading, the physiological blinds being drawn against his will. His thoughts are more frequently jumbled, and the line between waking and sleeping becomes increasingly blurred. Voices move across his consciousness, memories fade in and out, and he can no longer necessarily maintain awareness of whether his grandmother sitting quietly in the corner of the room knitting an afghan is any less real than the nurse taking his blood pressure.

Yes, the weekend would be a good time to go, with family around and the grandchildren playing at the foot of the bed. But he feels the cords releasing, the tension lessening, and the willingness to leave growing by the hour. Is it now? Is this the moment? Or how about now?

He feels himself carried into a nebulous moment of forgetfulness and calm violet light. The windows are illuminated, and the bed seems to be adrift in a field of snow.

(c) 2009 NurseKeith