Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My way or the high way

A man died the other day. Peacefully, he lay in his bed, which was pulled up next to his wife’s bed in the assisted living facility (ALF) where they have both been patients for quite some time. Both are hospice patients. We’ll call them Fred and Wilma.

Wilma has not spoken a word in years because of severe dementia that has held her mind captive. Daily they puttered around the ALF, and Fred saw to her every need and acted as her voice since they’d been married longer than many people live. Fred was considerably healthier than Wilma.

Fred was a retired colonel in the military and has a gift for stubbornness and is used to getting things his own way. “My way or the highway,” was a frequent phrase used to describe him. Wilma had been nearing death for quite some time. In talking with Fred I learned just how afraid this formerly very powerful officer was. He was afraid of being alone when his bride passed away. So afraid, he expressed to me that if it weren’t for the insurance problems it was cause, he would “expedite his own process.” They had been living together most of their lives, Fred wanted to die together as well.

A few days after our conversation, Wilma took a down-turn and stopped eating or drinking. The next day, Fred decided not to eat or drink as well. He would accompany his wife in every way he was able. Like a race to the finish these two declined together and stubborn Fred seemed to be moving more quickly toward his last breaths.

On his third day without food or water Fred died. As he preferred, he died either before or alongside his now unresponsive wife. I have no way of knowing her level of awareness; however, I hold on to the romantic idea that when his body and spirit are removed from that room she will know something is missing.

I can’t imagine Wilma holding on much longer. I’ve heard numerous stories of people being so connected that when one dies, the other doesn’t last much longer. But this was the clearest case I’ve ever witnessed. It has served to change some of my assumptions about life and our innate instinct to stay alive. Fred went against that instinct by choosing to time his life to his wife’s.

In talking with one of their daughters at the time of death, she showed me the last birthday card all her siblings had gotten Fred that was taped up in the room. On it were two arrows pointing in diverging directions. Above one arrow was the caption “Dad’s way,” and above the other read, “Highway.” That sure was the case through his dying breath.

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