We agonized over the decision to kill my father

We agonized over the decision to kill my father
Photo by David Brossard

M. is on a Mazzy Star kick I guess and keeps showing me pictures of Hope Sandoval from the 90s and I have to act like I haven't seen every single picture of Hope Sandoval from the 90s.

Today we're going to talk a lot about watching your parents die. Often after you've made the decision to let them do so. It's a heavy one not going to lie to you there buddy.

First a few other items of business.

This week marks a couple of significant anniversaries: The twentieth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq and the third anniversary of the day many of us finally started to to realize covid was real. The government's approach to both weren't that far off in practice. Death machine goes brrrr.

As I wrote a couple years ago in the Lockdown book:

I guess the Trump administration’s plan is to hide the bodies and pretend they’re not piling up like we did with Iraq?
I briefly convinced myself that there is some number of deaths some horrific massive number with real gravity to it that demands attention and action a tipping point type of number that we might reach whereby Republicans and “open the economy” types might stop acting like they are now. Is it 500,000 I wondered is it a million but if we’re being honest no such number likely exists. Instead what will happen is we will come to accept thousands dead every single day as another voice in the churning ambient chorus of suffering we do our best to tune out already much like with gun violence or unnecessary deaths due to the cost of healthcare or the thousands our military kills around the world. Many of us even the “good ones” like me and you already have started to do that in a way right or else how would we manage to function on a daily basis? How do you get up and measure out the coffee and heat up the water and poke your stupid face into the fridge for a nice piece of fruit every morning without pretending if at least for a while that no one is dying outside your walls?

I said this about gun violence back in August of last year in between the shootings in El Paso and Dayton—do you remember which those ones were or did it take a second?— and I suppose it’s just what deaths from the pandemic are going to be like going forward.

“It’s just like a weather report for a state you don’t live in at this point.”

Until it happens to you or someone you know and then it’s real.

Some of the major pushers of the war in media have had the balls to show their fucking faces this week writing retrospectives about the era. And why wouldn't they? None of them ever suffered any professional or reputational consequences for their blood lust.

As Adam Johnson writes in this piece: "not only have none of the hawks who promoted, cheerled, or authorized the criminal invasion of Iraq ever been held accountable, they’ve since thrived: they’ve found success in the media, the speaking circuit, government jobs, and cushy think tank gigs, and they currently occupy the Oval Office.... The almost uniform success of all the Iraq War cheerleaders provides the greatest lesson about what really helps one get ahead in public life: It’s not being right, doing the right thing, or challenging power, but going with prevailing winds and mocking anyone who dares to do the opposite."

Fuck them all very much. This old Hell World is for you Frum and Kristol and the gang.

As for the covid stuff a few years ago I asked an all-star lineup of friends to write about their experience during the dawn of the pandemic aka The Last Normal Day. Aside from it all being very moving and funny writing I find it fascinating to look back on to see how far we've come since then and/or how nothing much has changed at all.

One more thing! If you didn't read this one from the other day please do so. It may be one of the most important and somehow still under-covered stories going on in the country right now.

Speaking at a press conference on March 13, Ms. Terán was referencing the results of an independent autopsy that was released this week that casts further doubt on the state’s narrative regarding Tortugita’s murder.
The autopsy confirmed that Tortugita was shot at least 14 times, by various weapons, all over their body, and was most likely killed by a fatal shot through the head. In a significant refutation of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s (GBI) claim that Tortugita was killed after first ambushing police officers with gunfire, the autopsy found that Tortugita was “most probably in a seated position, cross-legged, with the left leg partially over the right leg” and with their hands and arms up in front of their body when they were killed. While the report could not confirm whether Tortguita may have shot a gun, it found no traces of gunpowder that would likely be associated with such a scenario.
“Manuel loved the forest,” said Ms. Terán. “It gave them peace. They meditated there. The forest connected them with God. I never thought that Manuel could die in a meditation position.”

Photo by Stefan Magdalinski

A cruel woman wrote a bad tweet. Many of them in fact. Wild right?

This is not about that or about her because fuck her (look here if you must know) it’s just that I kept seeing one of them shared into my timeline over and over again all week so many times that it made it impossible for me not to think back to the day we agonized over the decision of whether or not to kill my father. They told us that wasn’t what we were doing when it came time to turn off the machines but… you know.

Weren’t we?

I do not know and I will never know.

They said there was nothing to be done anymore. All potential avenues had been explored. Somberly and politely and professionally they told us that. Touching our shoulders perhaps. Shaking the doctor's hand like a salesman we were closing a deal with. And this assemblage of his children and stepchildren some of whom barely knew each other or barely knew him were suddenly thrown together like a ragtag group in a heist movie except what we were stealing was a life.

Not really. I know that’s not what we were doing but… you know.

Maybe we were stealing his suffering from him and distributing it amongst ourselves? Each taking our fair share. One of us greedier than the others stashing a little extra in our pockets for later.

It’s likely you’ve had this experience or will soon enough. They take you into some fucking room they have around the corner from where the person is attached to the machines and tell you what is happening and you’re either the type to meticulously take notes or record what they’re saying so you can try to logic your way out of the unsolvable puzzle or you’re the kind that blacks out and everything they say dissipates into thin air.

I don’t even remember which of us was which. There always has to be a captain in these scenarios. A reluctant captain. Alright they go. Alright... Duty is calling now they think.

I think that was me but I also remember thinking this isn’t even my ship. I don’t know how to steer this thing.

I don’t want to write another whole long thing about my father’s death. I think I’ve done enough of that over the years. I mentioned some of my “dead father writing” in this piece last week. Plus I am very lucky that I had a spare father kicking around this whole time. It’s like when the starting quarterback goes down and they bring in the next guy and it turns out he’s a much better player after all. Takes you all the way to the playoffs out of nowhere. I called him on St. Patrick’s Day which is his birthday and he told me he was going to go eat some corned beef and cabbage and watch college basketball. Some team was doing better than expected he told me which is the best possible outcome in college basketball. Some group of nerds (relatively speaking) trying so hard. Then he asked me if I had seen the Chris Rock special and I was like uh oh but fortunately that anecdote went by without incident.

I posted about the cruel lady’s bad tweet anyway that same day. Something like:

“I gotta say taking a parent off of life support when there’s no other outcome? I do not recommend the experience. It fucked me up forever I think.”

I honestly do think it fucked me up forever. I don’t think I will ever get over that experience of watching him die slowly like that. Wondering if he was conscious somewhere down in there screaming futilely to be let free. They told me he was not. They told me this was the only thing to be done now but… you know. They tell you a lot of things. Like how they told us all to line up to take the scam vaccine for example.

Just kidding lol. Imagine if I became a vaccine skeptic this late in the game? How craven and pathetic you'd have to be to make that heel turn now? Would probably be great for subscription money I suppose. If that's all a person cared about I have to admit it would be a pretty good bit.

A bunch of people responded to my tweet saying shit like:

"I've been different since I had to call it for my mom. I just don't grieve anymore, and it's been 15 years and many more passings. It did something sad to me."

"I’ll never forget making that choice but I knew my mom didn’t want to live one second in pain."

I asked a few of them if they wouldn't mind sharing a bit more about the experience of watching their parent die. Of letting them go. Of choosing something. A few were kind enough to do so.

  • My mom apologized when her cancer came back. She'd beaten stage 4 breast cancer a year before, but it was back in an inaccessible part of her brain. We sat together in the hospital while she told me she was sorry that she wasn't going to be able to get on her horse and ride off. My dad, brother, aunt and I, along with a parade of her friends and co-workers, brought food and cared for her while she held on for five months in the face of a disease that kills in two weeks. She saw my brother's, father's and my birthday. She sat through my brother and I setting off fireworks outside her window on the 4th of July. Through it all we ate dinner and watched bad TV while she faced her disease with bravery I can't imagine. That was how it went until the treatments were doing more harm than good and her pain was too much. I told her we'd be fine and that she could let go while I sat with her until she was gone. It is impossible really to say how much of a sea change it is knowing that generous heart, the first heart I ever heard, would never beat again.
  • The funny thing is I work at a hospital, in supply chain, and I found out my mom was in the ICU when I saw an order for a bed come through our order printer. My mom had a heart attack and was brought back with CPR but was unable to breath on her own. She was able to get an occasional word out but there was significant brain damage.  She wasn’t the healthiest due to alcoholism, but when she made me [power of attorney] she told me she would never want to live on a respirator. They tried multiple times to get her to breath on her own but after a final long talk with the doctor (a very well respected doctor) he suggested we try again and if she fails to breathe on her own, then not hook her back up to the respirator and begin comfort care (dope her up). That’s all he told me. I was like Pip from Lord of the Rings, and was like, that doesn’t sound so bad. I talked to my aunt and she was mortified of the idea of doing this but that’s why I was chosen so I agreed. As the nurses were unhooking the hose she kept saying a word over and over. It was “die.” She was asking me if she was going to die. I thought I had it all reconciled in my brain before that moment and it really tested my ability to follow through with what she wanted.  

    She was sedated and we let it rip and she couldn’t breathe on her own. For the next, honestly I can’t tell you the time, because it literally felt like hours, I sat there and watched her turn fifteen different colors and tortuously scratch for any bit of breath she could. We all sat there and watched her strangle to death. At that moment the reconciliation was gone and I had killed my mother in the most grotesque way imaginable.  I know it had to be done and it was what she wanted, but if only the doctor had told me something, anything about how horrifying it would or could be maybe I could have prepared better. I don’t know. I was shattered. I couldn’t go to her funeral. I have never talked that in depth about it until right now.
  • I was 24 when my dad died. He fell 25 or 30 feet off a roof he was working on that he wasn't harnessed to, nor was he wearing a helmet. He was 50 years old. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. In the cold light of day nearly 14 years later, I think the doctors were being as gentle as humanly possible by not telling us he was brain-dead at any point. Maybe too gentle. He lay in a coma for the 7 worst days of my life. They kicked us out of the hospital every night at 9 or 10. I can't remember exactly what time. My brother, his girlfriend (now wife) and I would go back to where we were staying and return at 6 or 7 in the morning every morning while the doctors did their rounds. My brother recorded everything they said about my father's case. I wonder if he still has those recordings.

    I got the call from the hospital shortly after I got back after a day of sitting in his room and playing music and talking for him. He was having a problem and I'd better come back to the hospital. I rushed back down to Brigham and Women's Hospital. I think I got a cab, I don't even remember. Maybe I ran? I banged on the door to the military ambulance my brother was staying in near the hospital. We sprinted back to the hospital. We got there and were told it was a heart attack, but because he had bleeding on the brain they couldn't give him the medicines and treatments they would normally do to stop the process. They essentially gave us the choice: attempt to save him from the heart attack and do even further damage to his brain, or let him go. I remember nearly nothing about the rest of that night. Only grim snapshots. My brother drove us all home to my dad's house and I fell asleep in the breezeway porch on a wicker chair in the middle of New England autumn sometime around dawn.

    I can say with almost total certainty the decision to just let nature take its course, for lack of a better turn of phrase, was the only option really available to us. But that doesn't make the fact of having to make that choice go away. It doesn't erase the “what if?” It doesn't un-earn any of the trauma of the entire experience. It's been nearly 14 years but I still think about my dad every day. It took until probably year 8 or 9 to stop having constant dreams about him still being alive. It is a hole in your life that will never get filled, you just learn to live with the hole. You learn to maneuver around the hole. But the hole is still there. It will always be there. The choices on what to do about it are: "be miserable and do nothing" or "be miserable and still get up and exist." Better to do the second one, I suppose.
  • It was four months from my dad's cancer diagnosis until he passed away. We decided to go through with chemo even though he was 82 and already Stage 4. It was a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, but it was fully covered by the VA so we gave it a shot. Over the four months of watching him decline, I did a lot of classic bargaining: "If he just makes it a couple weeks until the next chemo appointment." "If I can just get him to eat a little bit today." The doctors and nurses were all very nice, so much so that none of them ever wanted to sit me down and say "He's dying and he'll be dead very soon." Even at the very end when we'd stopped the chemo and moved him to hospice, I was still thinking "He just needs a little food and rest, he'll turn around." I could never fully admit it was actually happening until the last day when I showed up at the hospice center. The nurse walked me into his room and said "Do you hear that gurgling sound he makes when he breathes?" "Yeah." "That's called the Death Rattle. It means his lungs are slowly filling with fluid and he'll be dead very soon." "Oh. Okay. Thanks."

    When your dad is 82 and his cancer isn't found until it's already Stage 4, the conclusion is already forgone. All the choices you make in the interim are only there so that a year later you can sit up at night and think about how you probably made all the wrong ones.
  • She was only 48 when we decided it was time for her to die. On TV you pull a plug and it is swift and clean. But she could still breathe, so we told them to stop giving her food and water. I don't remember how many days it took my mom to die after that. It was not swift. In the six years prior, MS had effectively erased her mind and ability to function. That was not supposed to happen to someone her age. I don't know if she knew she was dying, or how she'd feel about us telling her doctors to finish the job MS started. I don't think my brain could process the horror of being asked to weigh in on that decision on top of watching her slowly deteriorate as I became a fully formed adult. When her body finally shut down, of course I felt grief, but also overwhelming relief that the nightmare was over. I hope it felt that way for her too.

Quick break in our scheduled programming here to share a few stories from the archives this all has been reminding me of. Don't worry there's more talking about dying parents below.

Here's an interview with an ICU nurse about working during the first two years of covid, building a wall inside so you don’t have to carry so many deaths around with you, and whether or not having loved ones there when you are dying makes a difference.

You can’t carry a thousand deaths around with you
Remember how proud we all were of healthcare workers there for a while? It was awhole thing. Clapping for them and shit. Big sappy TV ads thanking them. As weenter what may be another surge[https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/once-again-u-s-faces-another-covid-19-surge-as-cases-rise-nationally]…

This one is an interview with a palliative care nurse practitioner about how his job changed during the onslaught of covid, and what it feels like to be the person who has to explain to so many patients that they are going to die.

As the protagonist of reality you don’t expect that you’re ever going to die
Time is a resource that is extremely precious, especially in a hospital setting

These next two are lovely and moving essays about losing a loved one during peak covid.

"I remembered later that she had looked at the doctor after he said she would likely die—all of us were just hearing this for the first time—and, for lack of anything else to say, saying this, I think, not to appease him exactly, but just to say something, she said “that’s fair.” But she did not believe it. I know she didn’t believe it. The situation was the same combination of unfathomable and terrifying as a plane crash. Although she’d actually survived one of those when she was younger."

We have housed them far away from where we can see them
She walked out of a crashing plane into the air and pulled the parachute

"In the other room my mother called people to tell them the funeral was cancelled."

You want that to be the last thing you say to someone
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

And these two are about the funeral industry in America.

"From cradle to grave, we are born to consume, and if you aren’t able to outrun the creditors in death, then don’t worry, your next of kin can pick up the tab.

We die as we live, buried in debt.

But as with most of the ingenious advancements of capitalism, the practice of outsourcing our death, and having our dead bodies sold back to us, has only been with us for a relatively brief time."

Having our dead bodies sold back to us
laying out a vision of a death untouched by profit motive

"In my dad’s minivan there was a cot with a gray cloth cover that was always there, just in case, while we were out, we had to stop and pick up a body, either from the local morgue or on a house call. Once after a Little League game my dad gave another kid a ride home and he absolutely freaked out that a dead body had once been reclining on the cot in our van. I remember not being able to understand why this was such an alien concept to him."

I grew up in a funeral home
Keeping watch in case the deceased randomly sprung back to life

  • In the early autumn of 2022, my mother called to say she was in the hospital because she couldn’t eat without immediate expulsion and she was having trouble staying awake. It had been days before my step father convinced her to go to the hospital. The next day my aunt and uncle were flying in from California to finally visit her at the new beach house in Maine after owning it for five years. I was tasked with picking them up from the airport to drive them there, but instead we went directly to the hospital. She was barely cognizant of our visit. We were told her kidney was in critical condition and she might need a transplant, but the likelihood of her receiving that transplant was slim. My mother was an alcoholic. She had been spiraling since the pandemic. My mom was an extrovert who hosted parties in her backyard in California every Wednesday night for years. She simply did not know how to cope without being around friends and family. Those long drawn out months of nothingness caused an illness already inside her to exacerbate that became her demise.

    I am not a novice to the disease of dependence. My father had been an alcoholic my entire short life until my mother had to take him off life support just one month before my thirteenth birthday. Three weeks after my mother’s last intake at the emergency room, I would be the one deciding her fate.

    I was driving over a hundred miles round trip every other day for twenty one days, meeting with doctors, speaking with nurses, hearing their concerns that my mother was not getting the care she needed because of the health workers shortage. I knew she wasn’t going to make it out but it was all up to me to try to do my best for her. My step father was useless. He would come to sit with her but either Fox News or golf had to be on the TV. He didn’t ask questions, he didn’t inquire about my feelings about the situation; maybe it was shock but I suspect he had come to the conclusion she wasn’t coming home so what was the point of looking for alternatives.

    As her organs shut down my mom was put on life support. My aunt and uncle were on a cruise in Canada, her brother was on a European excursion with his family, and my step dad was at home sulking, so it was me, her only daughter, who had to make her last medical determination. I was told to wait by my family to get back from their vacations, and as selfish as that might sound, my mother was never one to judge people for having a good time during tragic events. But I also knew my mom never wanted to prolong suffering. She knew the drinking would do her in eventually. She knew her time on this earth was going to be short lived. Her 67th birthday just six months prior was a triumph considering the average age of women in our family is only 66 years. She had made it to her goal, she was done with this world and all its heartache. It took her a day and a half to pass through to the other side. The night before I cried to my partner that I didn’t want to go back, I couldn’t stand another second looking at her decay. But less than ten miles away from the hospital, I got the call that she was gone. As much as it was devastating, it was also a relief. My mom was no longer in pain, physically or emotionally. She no longer had to drink that poison to quell her anguish. I like to think she’s with all her family members she missed, maybe took a much deserved swing at my dad, although I don’t think he made it to where she did, and is up there having fun reminiscing about all the good times with the friends she lost along the way. Or maybe she’s just gone forever and her existence only lives in my memory. Either way, I know she’s at peace.
  • I am the oldest of five brothers, and I live on the east coast versus all my brothers still being within an hour of our mom in California. Our mother raised us by herself. She had a stroke, and I got on a plane. We met at the hospital, and we all knew my mother's wishes. In fact, there was a DNR packet that traveled with her wherever she went inside the hospital.  I know that it was mostly our collective "justifications," but we all felt like it was one of the final things our mother could do to help us through a very hard time.

    In 1988, her father passed away from lung cancer. He left no instructions, and my mother, grandmother and I had to make that decision without his direct instructions. Though the three of us were in agreement, we were just emotionally whipped by having to make that literally ultimate decision. Having gone through that with my mother, I could tell that she didn't want my brothers (or me again) to go through that same ordeal.

    I believe that having the experience with my granddad made the situation with my mother so much less stressful for me. I also observed in my brothers that they could focus on dealing with their grief rather than dealing with grief and a momentous decision.  We all knew that it was what she wanted.

    For me, the guilt I felt was more about me being so far away and not being around her more closely in the last years, rather than the decision making for end of life.

    The epilogue is that she had made all of her own funeral arrangements in advance and even splashed for a catered, drunken affair at the funeral home. She lay there in her open casket with a faint smile as we all had a wonderful time remembering her. She really made it into a party atmosphere, and the big group that was there made certain to be happy for knowing and loving her.
  • She spent her 67th birthday in the hospital surrounded by doctors, nurses, and the beeps of machines. Two weeks before, she was having whipple surgery after months of chemo. She was one of the lucky ones. With an experimental radioactive mesh around her organs, she was expected to live five plus years longer. The recovery time was to be about a week, but those weeks stretched on as the doctors worked to stabilize this or that. After a long, emotional month, she returned to her house to recover. Nurses and family members would stop by throughout the day to tend to her bandages, but she was too stubborn to let any of us stay over and take care of her. After all, she never needed help before, and why would she start at 67.

    We spoke daily, which was the best I could give living in another state. Her call came around 10 in the morning as it often did. This time she was annoyed. She wanted to let me know that she was coughing up blood and my sister was bringing her to the emergency room. At this time, I still thought this would be a routine post-surgery hiccup. A few hours later we spoke, and this time she was annoyed and angry that she may have to stay in the hospital overnight. After some tests, the doctors found some internal bleeding they needed to go back in and take care of. I said I love you and to call when she was back in her hospital room. Little did I know this would be the last time we would speak.

    That night I met some friends for a few drinks, came home, set my alarm for work, and fell asleep on the couch to a record. Around midnight the first phone call came. I woke up just enough to know the phone was ringing but didn't pick it up. I checked my phone after a few minutes and saw a missed call from my sister. I knew this wasn't good. We became estranged seven months earlier around the time of my father's death. I listened to her voicemail asking me to "call her back immediately." I sat up, drank some water, and then called her back. "You need to come home and to the hospital,” is what she said. “Mom's dying." All I could say was “What the fuck, she was fine! What happened?” My still half-asleep brain could not truly grasp what I was hearing. It didn't make sense, after all, she beat cancer, or if not beat, prolonged the inevitable. She explained that the doctors could not stop the internal bleeding and this or that was being affected and shutting down. I woke up any friend I could think of who would check in on my dog and within hours I was on a plane not knowing how long I would be away. The three hour flight was a blur of whiskey sodas and trying to make sense of what was happening. Only hours after starting my day and hearing my mom's voice, I would be at the hospital looking at her bloated face and body. Still my mom, yet some version of her I did not know could exist. I touched her forehead and made my way to her meticulously cared-for fingernails. This was still my mom. I stepped out into the hallway with my siblings, my brother had come in from California. I asked some questions and set up boundaries, after all, we hadn't spoken since my dad's death months earlier.

    Over the next 24 hours, there were lots of discussions with nurses and doctors, all saying the same thing. There wasn't anything more they could do and that we would need to make the decision soon. We left the hospital going our respective ways with the plan to meet back up in a few hours. It was early afternoon when we spoke with the doctor next. She let us know our options. My mom wasn't responding to treatment. I asked if my mom was suffering, but she wasn't. I asked if we could give it a few more hours just to confirm that she wasn't going to turn around. I knew this wasn't for my mom. It was for myself. I wasn't ready to let go. It was only 36 or so hours since we last spoke. We all knew the outcome. We started calling family to come to the hospital. I realized that I hadn't eaten and walked through the parking lot to a Taco Bell where I could only force down one bean burrito. I stayed there longer than was comfortable, but going back to the hospital room felt worse. After some time I received a text to come back in an hour. I knew what that hour meant. There was a bar nearby that I hurried to. Before sitting down I asked the bartender for a shot and a beer. I took my place on a stool next to a few older women who were also drinking. They asked if I was over at the hospital. Yes, I said. My mother is sick. They were staying nearby and also visiting a loved one who was also in the hospital. I wondered how many strangers met under these circumstances, using whiskey or whatever to numb themselves just enough before saying their goodbyes that they also weren't prepared for.

    I met my siblings under the fluorescent lights with the doctor. They needed one of our signatures before they could end life support. My sister was the oldest so they asked her first. She went back and forth while crying that she couldn't be the one to kill mom. This went on for some time. I realize now she was also stalling for time. I offered to sign the paperwork, but in the end, she said she was the oldest and would do it. Once this was done we joined aunts, cousins, and assorted family in the room. It happens quickly, I'm always surprised by this. The oxygen, blood pressure, and heart rate all battle it out to be the first at the bottom. When it's over, what do you say? You're bonded by a traumatic experience, even to the ones you don't want in your life.

    I recently lit a candle for my mom on the third anniversary of her death. That short time in the hospital still feels as vivid as when it happened. Questions and choices made still linger. I find myself listening to voicemails about the most mundane mom-type thing that somehow never got deleted. I wish I had more, but in the end, you feel thankful for the time you had, even if you always want just a little bit more.
  • My dad told me the news in his garage while working on the bike. I stayed in denial for a long time after, but deep down I knew he was a goner before he could even finish the word “pancreatic.” He was turning 62 at the time. I watched him age a quarter century per year after that, and by 64 (shout out Paul McCartney) it was time to end the misery.

    I numbed myself pretty heavily during those years, but three particular events hold the honor of being forever burned in my memory. In chronological order, the first memory is watching my father – my childhood hero, my guide to masculinity, beg a doctor to remove his balls. He could barely sit at the time; important parts were ballooning and he was desperate to stop the swelling in his abdomen and legs. He hoped a procedure of this nature might provide some relief and buy him some time. The doctor told him like he had had this conversation before that’s not really how it all works.

    Closer to the end, just before he was to be transferred to hospice care, I remember shaving his beard. It was the most intimate exchange we ever had. He was about to be carried out his front door and brought by ambulance to a place in Providence where people like him end up, and he wanted to look dignified. By now his beard hair had turned into brittle white straw that fell heavy to the ground when cut. He was cancer personified, but I made him handsome again. I remember holding my breath while trimming his neckline because I was secretly disgusted. He was sleep deprived and stoned and his mouth was usually open at all times by that point, so I didn’t want to breathe in the disease when he exhaled. Of course, I understood intellectually that that’s not really how it all works, but being face to face with oblivion is naturally repulsive and makes you feel things you’re ashamed of later. Still, he was the one who taught me how to shave so returning the favor was a way of saying what we needed to say without saying it.

    Last one. Big number three. The worst. Maybe it’s because I’m a musician (shout out dad) with sensitive ears, maybe it’s because it coincides with the time of his actual death, but the memory that haunts me the deepest is an auditory one. That god damn gargling, also affectionately referred to as the "death rattle," is a demon of a memory that creeps in whenever my brain wants to let me know I’ve been feeling too good lately. It hits me hard in the shower as the water spills down the drain, ruining the start of what is supposed to be a lovely day spent looking at potential houses to overpay for with my fiancé.

    For those who haven’t been lucky enough to experience the death rattle yet, the nurses will tell you like they’ve had this conversation before that your loved one isn’t in any discomfort, that that’s not really how it all works. This will piss you off and you will assure them there is no way they can possibly tell you that with absolute certainty. Sure, my old man had enough ketamine in his system for an entire platoon, but he also had the drug tolerance of a lifelong hippie. Besides, drowning is fucking drowning so whatever trip he was having sure as hell wasn’t a good one.

    I think that’s why I got weirdly zen and spiritual in those last moments together. I opened the window to let his soul out, and kept telling him it was a beautiful day outside. He took his last breath and me and my sister and our mom held hands and cried over his body. I had to laugh a little to myself when he let out one last surprise gurgle about five minutes later. Perfect comedic timing, pops.
  • It was in late 2009 and my mother, who had been infirm for at least a decade, had finally taken a very bad turn. I was used to getting phone calls about how she ended up going to the hospital and was released in an hour, or a day, and had largely written them off as hypochondria at this point. I had the beginnings of a family that needed me to not be on the line for someone an hour drive away, and she wasn't old enough to be in that bad of shape. The call was sent to voicemail, and the second one after that. As I slept in fits and starts due to my toddler being a toddler, I was called three more times. I finally looked and realized something must have been much worse than I originally assumed, and the voicemails bade me to hurry to the hospital as fast as possible.

    I sped to the hospital and arrived to the family waiting, my father staring into the distance right in front of him, and my aunt puffy and squinting from crying. When I went in to see her, I couldn't believe it was her; she was bulging and puffy, attached to multiple tubes and cords, and surgeon's tape holding devices to her bruising flesh. Her eyes lolled around behind her lids, like she was in REM sleep. Her fever had risen from 104 to 106. She was starting to get a yellowish tint to her skin from her kidneys shutting down.

    Was it me that did this? I finally ignored those passive-aggressive calls about her lack of pain management. Did I break her heart? It was a legitimate argument in my head about the situation. I sat there in the waiting room with my father who was terrifyingly disarmed from the situation. He was unable to make eye contact with the doctors or my family and I couldn't make eye contact with him. I knew I had done this.

    It was the second doctor's discussion, where he explained that they couldn't keep giving her fluids because her body had completely stopped processing and releasing it. This is why she was puffing up like a balloon. "She's dreaming in a coma though, right?" I asked, and he didn't beat around the bush. "It's a very bad sign for someone with the level of fever she has. She has spiked to 107, and the movements of her eyes are uncontrolled and with no responses to stimulus."

    Essentially it was the sign to me that whatever was laying there was no longer my mother. The amount of chemicals they had pumped into her was not bringing her back, and they hadn't actually found the underlying cause for this illness. I looked at my dad and asked him if we should, and he didn't respond, only shook his head, stood up and walked out of the room. I erupted into tears when I told the doctor to stop trying, and I didn't stop crying from hours. I didn't stop crying as my wife drove me home, or when I crawled into bed. I didn't stop when they called to tell me her time of death in the weak hours of the morning after I made the call.

    At some point I had realized I had cried myself out. It was when they wouldn't come to me when I talked to the funeral home about how we couldn't afford a casket, and how her body was in a holding room until our check cleared for cremation. It was sitting in the back room of this place that stank like old linoleum, like an old table or a broken lawn mower. I couldn't conjure a tear when we received a small brass container with everything that used to be my mom in it, and my dad still couldn't meet my eyes.

    I don't talk to my dad anymore. He's lost his mind. I wonder about me as well, since after her death I haven't had much of an emotional response to anything. It really crushed me into someone else who doesn't care about blood relations and I cannot forgive like I used to. It's been 15 years and there's still nothing but the mourning of a lost limb.

Still falling, breathless and on again
Inside today, beside me today
Around, broken in two
Till your eyes shed into dust
Like two strangers turning into dust
Till my hand shook with the weight of fear

I could possibly be fading
Or have something more to gain
I could feel myself growing colder
I could feel myself under your fate
Under your fate

It was you, breathless and torn
I could feel my eyes turning into dust
And two strangers turning into dust
Turning into dust