John M. Haynes
June 28, 1934- February 2, 2010
I spent most of last Friday through Tuesday evening at hospice with my husband and his family witnessing and assisting with his father's dying. I want to write about all of it. It was extraordinary -- as a detached observer, as a participant, as a member of the family, as a human being. I don't want to expose what was sacred to the family to the public, but I am a writer, and I'm always watching, and anyone remotely close to me should be aware of that. I'm looking. I'm stealing. I'm noticing. I'm processing. I'm filtering. And I'm going to write. It's just what I do, and I long ago learned not to apologize for who I am.
Each person present at John's dying has his or her own piece to tell. The relationship each of us had with him created part of the lens of the experience. Each person's experience with and beliefs around dying created part of the lens. If we sat in a circle and shared the story, perhaps we'd find the essence. Perhaps it doesn't matter.
This is part of the piece that's mine to tell:
John was diagnosed with cancer in mid November. He spent eleven weeks in Phoenix in and out of St. Joseph's hospital. He endured two rounds of chemotherapy, both of which put him in ICU with pneumonia and other complications. After the second round, he called his wife and said, "No more." He was transported back to Prescott on Friday evening and entered hospice care. By Tuesday evening he had died. He had two lucid days. His death, cliched though it sounds, was peaceful.
That's the nuts and bolts of what happened. Doesn't tell you very much does it? Could be any person, anywhere, any time. It's safe though. You'd find content like that in an obituary. No one could object to that. It's also boring. You'll forget it as soon as you read it. How does that honor an experience? How does that honor his living and his dying?
Let's get a little more real:
When John was in ICU in Phoenix back in December, he talked to me about death. He'd called Keith in the middle of the night. All of us thought he was dying that night, so we came up from Tucson to be with him. He had a mask on in ICU, and all of us who entered had to wear gowns and masks to protect his stripped immune system. John had been listening to a Kris Kristofferson song "Closer to the Bone" that he really liked.
"You know, Laraine, you always wonder your whole life what it'll feel like when you know you're dying. When you know for sure you're dying." He had to stop to breathe. "It's like this Kristofferson song. Everything is closer to the bone. Everything is raw. Everything that doesn't matter falls away."
Comin' from the heartbeat
Nothin' but the truth now
Everything is sweeter
Closer to the bone
When John entered his hospice room on that Friday night, he was visibly relieved. No tubes. No beeps. No frantic rushing to keep everyone alive. Just a space. Lots of chairs and a couch. We brought him tacos and a Dos Equis. Some member of the family sat with him all the time for the final five days.
"Looks like I'm not going to get to Pebble Beach," he said on Saturday. "Shit."
His legs had swollen to over twice their normal size. His feet were supported by blue foam. Nurses turned him every few hours. The first morning he wanted a paper. Then that fell away.
The next day he was silent. People came and went. His breathing anchored the room. We watched. Nurses still turned him every few hours. The family brought a wooden putter from home that he'd loved and placed it in his hand. He lay in the bed with his putter. Breathing.
Then, he woke up.
"Love you guys."
He ate his daughter's chicken dinner. His brother came from California. His friends came. Went. Came. Went.
Then he didn't eat anymore. Food fell away.
His wife spent his last night with him. She held him. His breathing anchored them.
Then water fell away.
"I want my Roseanne Cash," he said. We put the CD walkman around his ears. "Black Cadillac" began to play. "I'm gonna get working on dying now."
Then words fell away.
We put his putter back in his hands. We put his Pebble Beach US Open 2010 baseball cap on his head.
Then his color fell away, and a yellow glow moved up to the surface of the skin. His breathing kept us coming and going. Coming and going.
And then the first pause.
We put "Black Cadillac" on the room's CD player. We decided not to go for Thai food just then. We moved closer. I put my hand over his heart which was beating far too quickly for someone no longer moving.
Then the second pause came, and we knew.
"You're good to go, Papa," his children and grandchildren said.
"We love you, Papa," they said.
"Everything is taken care of, Papa," they said.
"You're good to go."
And during the last song of the CD, his breath fell away.
So I'll sail off on the good intent
To my true happy home
Yes, I sail off on the good intent
Never more to roam
I took my hand from his chest while his family stood in the silence, listening for the breath that had anchored them for a lifetime. We were no longer parents and children, brothers and sisters, lovers and friends. We were in the space where everything had fallen away.
We were closer to the bone.