What Death Really Looks Like

I went and saw the movie The Prestige last night with a friend. There is a scene early on in the film where Hugh Jackman’s character watches his wife drown in a water tank during an escape trick gone bad. As the scene went on I could feel the balls of my feet bracing against the floor and pushing me back in me seat. My arms drew up into a x across my chest and my hands covered my mouth. I could feel my friend’s concern as the scene progressed and Jackman’s character tried to first revive the wife and then dissolved into disbelief and tears. After the scene had passed I relaxed and slumped a bit in my seat.

There were other uncomfortable scenes but this one stayed with me. It reminded me of watching my husband die. It did so because of the terror of both the husband and the wife. I was so afraid of being with Will when he died and equally terrified that I would not be there.

The hospice workers tell you exactly what to expect. Even as his body began to cool, extremities first, and his skin mottle from lack of oxygen, behind the back of the knees is where it starts, I was still not prepared for the last minutes.

His arms and legs had contracted with each stage of his illness. He was so spastic that his arms and legs refused to bend at all by the end. As he slowly lost that last battle with pneumonia, they relaxed and unfurled. I had forgotten how tall he actually was until I came back that evening to stay the night with him and found him completely relaxed with arms and legs straight and loose.

The breathing begins to be less obviously labored and slows. The urine output is negligible and bubbly. As the strength required to draw breath in wanes, the chest stops its rise and fall and the effort shifts to the diaphragm. The nurse on duty that night pointed it out to me. I asked if it meant that he was going to die soon, but she told me that this was unlikely and this could go on for most of the night though she was sure he would not still be struggling so when morning arrived.

He looked waxen and even less like the man I married than usual. I was alone with him when I noticed the odd way he was gulping. Like a fish when it is lying on a dry surface. It seemed almost as if he was using his tongue to pull the air into his mouth and force it down his lungs. I watched for a minute, maybe two more. His head now hung limp and he was facing me with glazed eyes.

I hit the call button. The aide took forever, though really a couple of minutes, to arrive. I pointed to him, asked if that was normal. She didn’t know. New? I don’t know. I never saw her again. She went for the duty nurse. By the time she arrived I was sitting on the bed holding his hand with my other placed on his chest.

“Is this it?” I asked.

“I didn’t think it would happen this soon,” was the reply.

“Tell him it’s all right to go,” she told me.

I could feel his heart speed up, an uncountable number of beats. I repeated what I had been told. I told him I loved him.

Suddenly everything is moving very fast. The worst was watching him try to breathe frantically through his mouth. Trying to bring air to lungs that were still. There was no sound. I am grateful still for that. I can block out the image when it pops up but know that I would be defenseless against sounds.

And then it was done. A deep sigh. His head hung limply, eyes half open. I felt the heart beat just a few seconds longer. Then he wasn’t there anymore.

I just cried. I would rather endure just about anything other than to cry in front of someone else but I didn’t even notice that the nurse was still there until she came around the bed and sat down behind me and gave me a hug. Then she left me alone. And I was alone. He wasn’t there. I wanted to believe that he was still in the room with me and finally able to understand what I was saying to him but I am not so sure. I didn’t feel him at all and I would know him anywhere. I stopped crying almost as quickly as I began and didn’t cry again for nearly a week.

This feeling of disconnected numbness settles in and it stays for quite a while. I still sometimes feel so removed from myself and my actions that it is like watching a movie. I can do such dumb, self-destructive things then.

I avoid movies and television for the most part anymore just because of what happened last night. It’s not real and doesn’t even look real because I know what death really looks like, but it’s enough like reality to pull me back.

And I want out.

One thought on “What Death Really Looks Like

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