Tuesday 25 December 2018

Death at Christmas

Brett is 75. His wife contracted ALS, and he spent years taking care of her before she died.

Molly is 63. She spent 27 years married to an alcoholic member of my family. The divorce wasn’t the surprise; the surprise was how long she stayed. (The alcoholic is now sober.)

The two of them met nearly twenty years ago. It was a good fit, and the two of them have had a good life together. They both got a second chance. They never married.

Earlier this year, Brett was diagnosed with cancer. The doctor said he had six months or so. Radiation and chemo would control the situation, but this was incurable.

At the beginning of December, his doctor told him he had weeks left. Would he make it to Christmas?

On Sunday, December 23, 2018, I dropped in to visit. I don’t really know Brett at all. We’ve seen each other periodically at family events, or during my visits to Molly, but I don’t know him. Molly and family has told me he’s a good man: stable, hard-working, generous with his family, and kind.

We sat in the living room. Brett used to weigh about 160 but is now down to 120. He looks gaunt, but he was fairly lively, in good spirits. Curious, I asked him frank questions about his pain management. My mother died from cancer, and I’ve always thought the last few weeks of her life were cruel. Despite methadone, she spent all day curled up in the fetal position, shaking. I now understand this was from pain.

In 2012, I suffered a sports injury so bad that I had to take pain medication every day for six months straight. I now understand what it’s like to get up in the morning and spend your entire day focused on pain management. Who cares about the weather? Who cares about the news, what’s on TV, or anything else in life? My biggest preoccupation was how to get through the next sixty seconds.

I discovered that pain medication can dull pain, but it doesn’t make it go away. I compared it to having an umbrella in a torrential downpour: Your head may be dry, but you’re getting soaked.

I can still picture my mother lying there, shaking like a leaf. If she had been a dog, the vet would have put her down. I’ve thought more than once, collectively we are more humane to animals than to other human beings.

Brett told me his pain had been so far under control. The one to ten scale is quite subjective, but he estimated he was around a four. It was manageable.

Sitting here writing this, I can’t help comparing him to my mother. She was diagnosed in the summer, given six months to live, and died pretty much six months later, toward the end of January. Brett’s going to make it through Christmas and New Year and will probably die in January.

When I got up to left, I shook Brett’s hand.

Me: “Are you scared?”

Brett: “No.”

Me: “Are you angry?”

Brett: “No.”

Maybe me asking that seems insensitive, but does he ever talk about it with anyone? With Molly? With his own family? This seems like the sort of thing people would be uncomfortable talking about, and the person in question never gets a chance to discuss it.

As I walked out the door, Brett said, “See you.”

Actually, I will never see Brett again. He will await his time. He has apparently lots of methadone, so I hope his pain will not be too much of a burden. Although, I think toward the end – judging from my mother – the pain can become excruciating. And as I said, medication dulls pain but doesn’t make it disappear. It’s always there, tugging at your conscious mind, constantly reminding you that as soon as the pills wear off, sheer, utter hell awaits. At what point does death become a blessing?

I got in my car and drove away. I went back to my life, my daily routine and my plans for the future. Some day, my turn will come. Will I be scared? Will I be angry? Will I hope for a blessing as I manage my pain?

Some day. Just not today.

Update: 2018-12-29
Brett went downhill quickly yesterday. He was transported to the hospital and died just after 1am, today. Molly's daughter phoned to give me the news. She was with her mother. I specifically brought up the question of pain. Apparently, the nurses had him shot up with the maximum amount of methadone. Was that enough? We all have to resign ourselves to facing death. It's inevitable. It's an integral part of the human experience. However, not all of us die peacefully in our sleep.


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