Phil has lost more weight, his pajama clad form looks as if he’s become one with the bed, and his body has sort of melded into the sheets and blankets. I sit down next to him and reach for his hand and he grimaces in pain so I release his hand. For weeks his daughters have been tag-teaming, maintaining a constant vigil so that one of them is with him at all times. They bring him juice, check his oxygen tank, walk him to the bathroom and when he drifts off to sleep, they quietly cry. Carolyn tells me that he’s had numerous phone calls from friends and former business associates, people that Phil has influenced over the course of his life. Phil is now to the point that he comes in and out of awareness. His skin has taken on a distinct yellow hue because his liver is failing. His feet jerk and his arms twitch in response to the pain and he’s hallucinating; he wants to know who brought the big yellow dog into his apartment. I just have to wait him out. After a few minutes he recognizes me and smiles. I reach out for his hand again and he squeezes back and I can feel the shape of the bones in his hand. He’s getting more morphine now and its efficacy comes and goes. His voice is just above a whisper, a gravelly whisper at that and as we talk he misplaces words and images. After a few minutes of confusion he grows quiet, takes a deep breath then turns to me and apologizes.
“All this morphine, it makes it almost impossible to hold a conversation, I’m sorry John, I know I’m not making any sense.” I gently squeeze his hand and he squeezes back. Words aren’t necessary but I stupidly ask him if he’s in a lot of pain.
“It’s my constant companion, it’s been with me for a while, too long really but a friend is coming to visit soon and relieve me from all of this.”
“A friend? Who’s that Phil?”
“Death. Death is coming soon and God willing I’ll be accepted into the Good Lord’s arms.” After I tell him that I’ve been praying for him he asks me to direct my intentions to Rannie because she’s going to need it after he’s gone. Phil is ready to go but he knows Rannie will be heart broken. The pain of having to leave her is evident.
“Phil, do you think that when we get to heaven, we’ll have our young bodies back?” He slowly turns to me and smiles.
“Oh, wouldn’t that be nice John, wouldn’t that be nice.”
A few years ago, while I was still employed here, a resident in our memory care facility was passing away, his family was on the way but were at least 24 hours out. Our boss gathered up volunteers from every department and made sure someone was holding this gentleman’s hand at all times. It didn’t matter that he was dying of Alzheimer’s and his dementia was so pronounced that his eyes had grown grey and cloudy; her compassion was so strong that she would not allow him to die alone, the hand of a stranger is better than no hand at all. Those few minutes I spent with him made an indelible impression on me. I knew him when he was cognizant, he would smile and snap his fingers at me as he chirped, “Well hello there chef!” In just a few months though, his disease progressed to the point that he barely recognized his own surroundings. His last few days were spent writhing in bed; his body was forgetting how to do even the most basic tasks of living such as drawing a breath. But he was still a man, a human being with a soul and a desire for dignity and he did not go through his final hours alone.
Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve grown much closer to Phil than I was prepared for. Our relationship has been strengthened by his approaching death and though he is ready to leave, there are many that would prefer to have just a little more time in his company. I pray that my time with Phil has brought him a bit of comfort during his last days. Death is a challenge that no one should have to face alone.