It was just after 11am as I recall. I had been at work when I got the message. Walking back onto the grounds of the same hospice I had been at only 6 years earlier when I watched my brother pass away was a task of Herculean effort as every memory from that month flooded back into my brain like a lightning bolt crashing into the ground. This time, however, it was for my father-in-law. Not easier, just different.
I walked past the screened-in patio where I spent many nights with my family during the last days of my brother’s life. The only reprieve I had in the storm of emotions that was ripping through me was that I did not have to go into that particular building. So, I passed by, glimpsing over one last time as I walked into the building opposite, crossed the family room and walked into the room where my father-in-law was.
I saw my wife, seated next to her dad, holding his hand. His eyes were closed, his body wracked and shambled from the cancer that had ravaged him for the last year and a half. Her sister stood on the opposite side, watching. The room was dark, the mood was somber, and the setting bleak. We all knew this was going to be it, the last place we would ever see him.
In the subdued setting, the only noise that could be heard was his breathing. Raspy, jagged, wet and inconsistent. He would take a breath, almost gurgling it in, then ten to fifteen seconds would pass before he would take another. That noise deafened the room when it happened.
I stood across from my wife, her ability to comfort in such an extreme situation something to be marveled at. Here she was, saying goodbye to her dad, and yet somehow she maintained a smile on her face with words of serenity flowing forth. Her eyes told a different story, tear-stained and wet.
Afraid to break the silence that blanketed the room, I mouthed to her if she was ok. She nodded, but we had ridden this rodeo before and both knew that the proper answer to give was never what was truly going on. I looked down at my father-in-law, using every bit of strength I could muster to keep a strong face on, needing to be that for her.
This one was stronger. Deeper. Different. I think my wife held her dad’s hand a bit tighter. Somehow, I think she knew. No one said anything for a long time. Thirty seconds passed. A minute. Finally, someone suggested we get the nurse.
When she came in, we all knew. Her words just echoed a truth we had come to accept already. My wife and her sister said their final goodbyes and as we all left the room I finally let out the breath I had been holding for a long time.