This isn’t a typical post for me, but since this is a “lifestyle” blog, I figure I can kinda write whatever I want. That’s the whole point. And I appreciate my people (all of you) who continue to come back and hear what I have to say. I try to be mindful of everything I write and hope it helps people in one way or another.
My uncle passed away on Sunday. All the things I’ve thought about death and dying have changed a bit from this experience. His name is Jim. He’s my moms only sibling and though they didn’t get along well in their youth, they have since become best friends.
I’m leaving out a lot of details (feels too personal to share for all the world to read) but I wanted to at least share something. What to include and what to leave out isn’t totally clear for me, but I think sharing some moments of vulnerability and truth can be helpful (for the writer and the reader). So we’re going journal style-ish and hopefully it will help someone. Or at least someone can relate.
He was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, but we don’t think that’s how he died. His liver shut down first. Then other organs. He was admitted into the hospital last Monday as doctor upon doctor tried to figure out what was wrong. He just got more and more sick. In the beginning we still had hope, but still encouraged my mom to spend as much time with him as she could. Saturday evening my sister and I were able to spend a few minutes with him. He was so sick. And barely able to speak. But I was able to give him a hug and tell him I love him. He knew who I was. I’m so grateful for that last chance to talk to him. And make sure he knew how much I cared about him. I’m also grateful I didn’t necessarily need that time to make sure he knew. The time we spent together throughout my life was well spent. And he already knew how much I loved him. But I was grateful for one last chance to say it.
By Sunday morning his body was shutting down. He said he was ready to go and doctors still had no conclusive reason why his body wasn’t working right. Any efforts to save him were stopped. Family and friends started to gather. There was no timeline. No definitives. No hope for life left. He was moved to a room in the hospital to accommodate larger groups of people. It’s interesting to me there are rooms like that in a hospital. The room they take people to to die. It was horrible and helpful all at the same time.
We took turns going in and out of his room. Standing by his side. Holding his hand. Sitting on the couch and staring into space. At times it was quiet. Other times it was louder as family and friends who haven’t seen each other for a while talked, joked around a bit to ease the pain, and reminisced about a life well spent.
The doctors said it could be hours. It could be days. I prayed it wouldn’t be days. Once you know someone isn’t going to live, it’s hard to see them continue to labor staying alive. Every ounce of my being didn’t want him to die, and at the same time, every ounce of my being wanted him to die quickly to end his suffering. And ours.
A little before 2pm on Sunday, his heart rate slowed. His breathing became more sporadic. My dad (who is a doctor), held his wrist and felt his pulse. “It’s almost time” he said. Everyone gathered around his bed. We just stood there. And watched. And waited. And cried.
I’ve heard stories about people dying in circumstances like this. I’ve seen it in the movies and on TV. Turns out it was nothing like I’d heard or seen. It’s impossible for me to put into words what it’s like to watch someone you love so much slowly lose life. As he took gasps of breath further and further apart, I expected it to be more peaceful. People say it’s peaceful. The truth: It wasn’t peaceful for me. It was hard. So hard. I wanted him to live. And I wanted him to quit trying to breath. I don’t even know how to explain those two very conflicting emotions.
And then he stopped. Stopped trying to live. And stopped breathing. His spirit left. His body stayed. And we all just stood there. Crying.
What do you do after someone you love stops breathing right before your eyes? I didn’t know. There wasn’t the urge to try and get him to breathe again. I knew it was time. But what comes next? What do you say? What do you do? Walking away and leaving his body there just felt strange. My dad went to get a nurse. She came and listened for a heartbeat. Then she left for the doctor. And we all just continued to stand there.
The doctor came to examine his body and it was time for everyone to leave the room. One last look, but he was already gone. The body looks different when the spirit leaves. Not sure how to explain that one either. It was him. But it wasn’t him.
I hope his children had a different experience than I did. I hope it was peaceful for them knowing their dad was about to join their mom who passed away in the San Francisco earthquake in 1989. He’d also been increasingly sick for the past two months (on top of the previous months of cancer treatments) so a relief from sickness and suffering was a welcomed one.
His personality changed over the months. His sense of humor left. That was the hardest for me. He has such a great sense of humor. It’s how we bonded. One time he took me to see a place he called Daffodil hill in California. Only when we got there (after what seemed like an endless ride) there were no daffodil’s. Must have been the wrong season. So every time I went to visit him, I asked if we were going to daffodil-less hill again. We loved to tease each other. Our relationship was built on it. So when I teased him for getting sick and landing in the hospital, he just stared at me. No response. That’s when I knew things were bad. And probably weren’t getting better.
I’ve been very pensive since he died. A close friend of mine lost her dad in a tragic work accident just last week and the two deaths have me thinking. About a lot of things.
People know we love them by how we act. By how we treat them. But it’s also so important to SAY “I love you.” Showing people we love them is obviously important. But telling them is too.
Watching someone die is hard. But oh how grateful I am God gave us that last chance to be with him. Enough time to say goodbye. But not so much time that the suffering became unbearable for him or us.
I don’t think anyone would say they love hard times, trials, adversity, but the times when our spirits are put to the test are also the times our spirits are knit together. I’m thankful I got to have this experience with my family. I think we’re closer having gone through this together. I think this is true of most hard experiences. It can pull us apart or knit us together. Although I felt so much sadness and unrest, I also felt so.much.love.
This has also made me increasingly grateful for photos. I know, didn’t think it was possible. But this experience reaffirmed the value of a photograph. When someone leaves, all we have left are memories. And photos. The photographs (for me) are the only way to hold on to the memories. Photographs have so much value while we’re all still alive, but they are priceless when someone passes away. Are we taking enough photos of the people we love? Are we taking photos with them? Are we taking the RIGHT KIND of photos?
Life is hard. Death is hard. But oh how grateful I am for the chance to be here. To meet the people I meet and love the people I love. I’m grateful for the life my Uncle lived. For who he became. For the friend he was for my mom. For the laughter and happiness he brought to my life.
His death makes me want to be a better person. To treat the people around me better. To be more intentional about how I spend my time. To show people I love them and to tell people I love them. I want to make a greater effort to accomplish my big dreams. And help my children and loved ones do the same. I want to say yes to adventure and worry less about things that don’t really matter. I want to DO more. I want to BE more.
Love you Uncle Jim. Heaven is lucky to have you. See you on the flip side.