It seems to be universally true what Lesléa Newman writes about her mother dying in hospice. They wait until you’re not there to go. I awoke to my brother’s labored breath around 3 a.m. I jumped up from the fold-out blue leather chair bed where I’d been dozing beside my sweet sibling, fading in and out of dreams of when we were young and climbing on trees in the woods. We were strong in muscle and in spirit.
Now George had thinned almost beyond recognition of the superstar high school athlete that he’d been. His face was gaunt, his eyes glazed over. He was no longer speaking, but the last time he did, he said he wanted to be in the sun. Understandable, as he had spent the last 16 weeks of his life in ICU, almost all of it in a medically induced coma while he endured up to five surgeries a week on his abdomen. There was a brief moment of hallelujah when George looked like he was going to recover fully. He was walking; 10 steps felt like he was the man walking on the moon. But then he was overcome by more illnesses and his body just couldn’t recuperate. And from there, he fell deeper into the chasm of dying.
I signed the order for him to be moved to hospice. It was the single hardest decision of my life, even though the doctors said he wasn’t coming out of this alive. To remove hope for my brother and for myself and for his children felt to be the cruelest act. But this I did. I had to let him go. I had to be strong in spirit for the both of us. The night he left, I knew it was time because of his breathing and then the dark red starbursts that appeared on his feet–something I’d read in the gentle hospice brochure that helped loved ones get ready for their beloved darling’s departure. The literature also said to make sure to speak to your loved ones as if they can hear you because they absolutely can, even if they cannot react.
After awhile of laying my head on my brother’s chest and telling him he didn’t have to stay any longer, I made promises I will keep and I professed my admiration for him and my eternal gratitude for being his sister. Then I said to my 36-year-old brother, “I’m going to get the nurse, George. I’ll be right back.”
I padded down the hall from our corner room, wearing one of my brother’s oversized UGA T-shirts and a pair of sweatpants his dear friend Anne had brought for him to wear, but he wasn’t going back to wearing clothes of the well, no matter how much normalizing stuff we brought in from the outside.
At the nurse’s station, I whispered in a shaky voice that my brother was having some changes in breathing. The kind woman in large glasses returned with me to the room. She took out her stethoscope and checked Georgie’s heart. She held his hand. She said he was ready. I said I’m going to call our mother so she might have time to get here. She lives almost two hours away.
“George, I’m going to call Mom,” I said. “I love you.”
I was gone all but three minutes as I spoke to my mother’s husband from the hospice library. When I came back to George’s room, the nurse looked at me and nodded.
“He’s gone,” she said.
My heart was broken in a thousand pieces as I looked at her holding my dear brother’s hand. I was filled with gratitude that even though I hadn’t been there in his final second, he had not died alone. I nodded back to her. There was a hollow emptiness where George’s living spirit had been less than five minutes before. But the room was filled with peace and love.
Photo: Our Labor of Love