Sunday, September 21, 2014

Saying Good-Bye

As she was leaving the library, she noticed that she had missed a call from her mother. As she listened to the message, her heart squeezed.

"I'm sorry to call you on your work cell, but I am trying to reach you. Your uncle is in the hospital. It doesn't look good."

Her gait stuttered on the library's stairs, nearly causing her to fall. She paused to regain her balance and took a breath before heading to her car. She returned her mother's call to find out which hospital and which room her uncle was in before heading over.

When she entered to room, she saw her brother and mother first, and then her aunt. Finally, her eyes were drawn to the bed. Her uncle was asleep and so very still. She found it hard to look at him, but even the quick glances showed that he was very sick, proof of her mother's words. 

After giving embraces to the family and feeling a slight shock that everyone was somehow dry-eyed, she finally allowed herself to actually look at her uncle. His skin appeared so dark, darker than she remembered ever seeing it. It was not the golden brown, healthy tan that showed off his percentage of Puerto Rican heritage, however. It was a dark yellow, a hue that should never be seen on human skin. This ugly tint was the outward warning that his kidneys had failed and his liver was dying. His already rounded abdomen was larger than usual, while his ankles and feet were swollen. She heard someone mention the fluid wasn't draining like it should. Fluid that shouldn't be in his body in the first place. The swelling somehow underscored just how much smaller he managed to appear as he laid in the hospital bed. 

Her uncle's body held so many contrasts, giving both proof of life and life's departure. His shoulders and collarbones jutted through his hospital gown. The sharp edges looked delicate and frail, completely out of place in a man who had not been physically small. His hands, however, were long-fingered and still looked strong, even as they lay unmoving on his blanket. His face and neck seemed thinner, the skin hanging loosely on the bones. His hair was still gleaming dark and thick, spilling wildly across the white of the pillow. His long, graying mustache was neat, framing a chin he had kept clean-shaven recently, but now it boasted a day's growth of beard. He slept, but he slept uneasily. Occasionally he would groan, but whether it was from his dreams or from pain no one knew. Upon her aunt's quiet request, she pushed the little black button that would release a dose of morphine into her uncle's IV bags, hopefully easing any pain that he may feel. She couldn't believe it had actually come to this point.
Her uncle had been sick for a couple of years now. He was a stubborn man, barely willing to allow the family to know when he was in the hospital during the various stages of his illness. They often found out he had been in the hospital the day before, if not the day of, his release from the hospital. The doctors recommended that he get on the list for a kidney transplant, but he resisted. He worried over the medical costs any time he had no choice but to go to the hospital. He also did not want to admit he was sick, even when he referred to being sick. Her father shook his head at his brother's stubborn refusal to get the help he needed, but said little, for her uncle came by his hardheadedness honestly. The entire clan had the same unrelenting streak, allowing each member to recognize when there is no chance of changing a mind.

During her following visits, her uncle never woke. Her father and his other two siblings were each able to talk to their brother during his first day in the hospital, but as that day grew older, my uncle slipped further away. Her father had the most coherent conversation with his brother, since he was at the hospital when her uncle was first checked in, but all three siblings were able to say their good-byes. She was grateful for this, for she knew how important it was that her out-of-state uncle knew that his brother loved him, even though they had not seen each other in years. By her uncle's second day in the hospital, he rarely woke and spoke less. He was even less aware on his third day and didn't truly speak at all. It was heart-wrenching to watch the fast progression of the final stages of his illness. It was just as difficult watching her aunt and cousin try to be strong.

Her aunt struggled with her husband's illness. She tried to stay positive and strong, but also had difficulty balancing the reality that her husband was dying. Her words swung back and forth between past and future tenses as she tried to deal with the present and the future. Her uncle's daughter was better at hiding her pain, keeping busy with planning and organizing the things that needed it. Somehow, both managed to keep their eyes dry and their tones light, as least while she was there. She could see her aunt fight to keep the tears back, even as she tried to keep from hovering over her husband. There was quiet talk of hospice care, and the hopeful "when he is released on Monday" so that he could come home. Her aunt found it difficult to say "when" instead of "if," wanted that "when," but felt the "if." Conversation stayed on the day-to-day aspects of life: work, politics, family, and the weather. All in the effort to keep the atmosphere lighter and to engage her uncle, just in case he was listening.

She looked at her uncle and remembered him as he was as she grew up. She remembered when he used to smoke large, foul-smelling cigars. It was during that same time that he taught her what butterfly kisses and Eskimo kisses were. One specific memory of those gentle teachings was of her sitting on his kitchen counter, legs dangling over the far-away ground. Her uncle looked at her and asked if she knew what butterfly kisses were. She had shaken her head and the next thing she knew, his eyelashes were tickling her cheek, causing her to giggle.

She remembered him taking Polaroid pictures during clan gatherings. He didn't take them for himself, he took them for his mother, so she could look through them and remember. She thought her uncle also simply enjoyed playing with his new toy. She did too. She had loved waiting and watching for the photos to develop, revealing the captured antics of her loud family.

She looked at his current facial hair style and thought back to the different beards he had worn through the years. Long, richly black beards that hit his chest (making those butterfly and Eskimo kisses extra ticklish), full rounded beards, long side burns, or a simple mustache. He preferred beards, however, and was rarely clean-shaven. He had a full head of hair, unlike her father, which stayed full black until only within the last decade, where just a few streaks of silver decided to make themselves known. Very few people would have believed that he was in his late 60's. 

Her favorite memory of her uncle, however, was when he gave her an old hat for her birthday. It was a gift that his wife and daughter did not understand, even apologized for, but one that she appreciated above all other gifts from them. It was the hat her father had worn when he served in Vietnam. When he returned from his service, he had given his hat to his brother, who in turn had kept it for decades before passing it on to his teenage niece. Her uncle had understood, where few others had, how much she would appreciate having this piece of her father's history.

There were also the memories from the last couple of years as her uncle's health began fading. One time, he had suffered a heart attack while changing a tire in his driveway. He insisted on finishing the task before he allowed himself to be taken to the hospital. She even had a memory of one of his memories, something he referred to often. One of the few times that she knew he was in the hospital a couple of days before he was released, she had gone to visit him. She had held his hand, and finding it cold, set about chaffing it and holding each hand alternately between hers to warm them up. It had meant more to him than she truly understood. Then there were the jokes and comments he would make about his impending death, making light of his health as a way to prepare himself and his family for the eventuality. His efforts to maintain a good humour when he was not feeling well, as well as his concern for his wife and daughter, were clear. It was disconcerting to see this man that she remembered laying on a hospital bed, surrounded by hospital machines and grim, silent expectation.

Everyone hoped for the impossible, prayed that somehow he would wake up and make a recovery. Yet, the knowledge of what his damaged body was actually doing was evident in the quiet moments, in the words unspoken. It is so hard to say good-bye.

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