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Friday, March 18, 2005

Death, Dying, and Prayers.

As a Christian, I have no fear of death. I’m not racing to get there as quickly as possible, but I have faith that when I die there will be no need to have feared it. I can’t pretend to know what Heaven will be like, but I’m hoping it will have biscuits and gravy for breakfast, chicken fried steak for lunch and bar-b-q brisket for dinner.
Why I do fear is the manner in which I will die. A few years back, I made a list of all the people I had known that were now dead. It was a morbid and sobering exercise. Some of them died peacefully – like my grandpa who went to sleep and never woke up. Some of them died horribly – like my friend in Florida who got up one night to see what a noise was and ended up being murdered with a butcher knife.
The worst death I know of, though, is one that I watched over a span of time. My mother remarried when I was in eighth grade and her husband, Fred, was the first man who ever really tried to be a father to me. My view of him ranged from emulation and adoration to hatred and contempt. I suppose that is what it often means to be a teenager. I would not, however, wish his manner of dying on anyone.
Fred was a dialysis patient. He had lost his kidneys to disease after a horse fell on top of him. He lived almost twice as long as kidney patients were supposed to live back then and, for the most part, he was a great guy. He was a tough old bastard and I admire the way he fought back against his disability. It can’t be easy to feel your body filling up with waste over the weekend while you wait for your turn for dialysis. I can’t say he managed it with grace, but he did breathe life into the “do not go softly into that good night” line.
During Christmas break of my senior year in high school, I rode a greyhound bus down to my uncle’s for the holidays. I ended up coming back ahead of schedule because Fred had yet another heart attack and Mom needed help with the livestock. I spent the next several weeks going to school, tending livestock, and watching Mom go back and forth between the farm and the hospital in some kind of vain hope that her activity would breathe life back into her husband.
Fred’s brother was deaf from birth, and his family learned to finger-spell so they could communicate with him. I learned it from Fred, which turned out to be a sort of damnation for me. The last few weeks he spent in the hospital, Fred was on just about every machine known to man. After he tried several times to yank out his IV, breathing tube, feeding tube, and God only knows what else, they tied his hands to the bed rail. The only way he could communicate with all the tubes shoved down his mouth was by finger-spelling.
I stood there, not quite eighteen, and watched this man that had formed so much of my opinion of what a man should be as his eyes glazed over a bit more day by day with fear. When I was there, he would shift his eyes back and forth quickly to get my attention and look down at his hands. I stood there and read his fingers out loud for the doctors and nurses.
“R – A – T – S,” I said, watching him point at the ceiling then close his eyes as a fearful tear dripped down his face.
“C – E – I – L – I – N – G,” I said slowly. I looked up and didn’t see anything. He jerked his hand against the rail to get me to look down again.
“M – O – U – T – H.”
The nurse stared at me and I throat closed so tight I could barely speak. “He says the rats on the ceiling are falling in his mouth.” He nodded vigorously, shook his whole body and moaned. The tears streamed down from both his eyes. Mine, too.
I did that over and over for a couple of weeks until his body got too weak even for the machine to force it to work. I watched as his eyes lost all light and his body grew horrifyingly still. Mom held his hand and whispered, “I’m here,” until either me or my brother Will - I’m not sure which one it was - pulled her away from his lifeless shell.
I’ve thought about this scene too many times in my life. It comes back to me every time I see a loved one dying. It has been a living, breathing companion over the last few weeks as the courts and legislatures debate the fate of Terry Schiavo. I won’t pretend to know all the facts, and I really don’t care. I only hope that she isn’t aware of what is going on around her. I really can’t imagine a more horrific prison than being in an unresponsive body that refuses to die.
My most heartfelt prayer is that I never come to that. Right behind it is the prayer that if I do, someone will put a gun to my head and keep pulling the trigger until there are no more bullets left to fire. Mercy killing or murder won’t matter to me. Whether or not God can forgive someone for such an action I can’t say. For my part, there will be nothing to forgive.

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