When I was in school we had a session on dealing with death. We had to get in groups and practice putting the identification tag on the right big toe of the deceased patient. During labs we practiced putting mannequins in body bags. Alas, only real life can truly prepare you for real life.
Real life happened today when I gave post-mortem care for the first time. It’s definitely an oxymoron. Ceil’s eyes were closed, skin jaundiced, heart silent. Her body was cold to the touch.
I wasn’t thinking much, just trying to get the job done. I remembered bathing her just a few days before; when her eyes were open, her skin rosy, her heart beating. I can remember her even a little better now: walking into her room bright and early and asking if I could open the blinds and let a little light in. We talked about flowers. I asked her what her name was. She repeated her full name and then said, “but everyone close to me calls me Ceil. You can call me that too.”
She had these packs of cheese crackers on her bedside. She told me about how much she loved her cheese crackers. She told me about how every morning she had a blueberry muffin for breakfast with coffee and she ate it outside.
She was out at a crowded place when she met her husband . “He’s a musician.” she told me. (about her husband) “We’ve been married 51 years.” She bragged about his music skills. “I can tell you still love him.” I said. “OH YES.” she emphasized. “Yes we do.”
The reason she was at the hospital is because she was in the kitchen trying to reach something. Her husband tried catching her but instead she just fell through him like a domino.
I lectured Ceil after lunch about losing her mobility. “You don’t have to.” I told her. I was encouraging her not to disable herself but to start moving her limbs, even if she was lying in bed all day. “You don’t need someone to feed you.” I told her. “Here, I’ll give you a few more bites and then you need to use your arms and try to feed yourself” I said.
She had gone from getting up in the chair and using the commode to staying in bed and using the bed pan all the way to incontinence. I had talked with the family too because I was concerned that she was being enabled too much and it was setting her back physically. “Talk to him!” Both daughters exclaimed. “We tell him this all the time.” “Dad, listen!” Her husband had by this time arrived and was standing at her bedside feeding her every spoonful of her dinner. He was a happy guy. He felt no obligation to stand there and feed his wife. He had a full mop of white hair and a white handle bar mustache. Looking like an Arizona country singer, with collared button down shirt tucked inside a pair of faded black jeans and a brown leather belt to top it all off.
None of the family saw the death coming. Ceil’s daughters had stayed over night, which they normally hadn’t done. “Something possessed both of us to stay the night last night,” I heard the daughter saying to someone over the phone.
A few hours after her passing the room began filling up with relatives. Tattooed and pierced grand-children sobbing their hearts through their sleeves… full grown crying men all stood around her bedside.
Ceil’s husband hadn’t been told over the phone. He had not prepared for this AT ALL. I walked towards the crowded doorway and I saw him on his knees by the lump underneath the white sheets. He had knelt down beside the bed and thrown his torso over her. His face was buried on the sheets and he was groaning. His groans were sharpened by a knife within, as if some deity was ringing his heart out. “Wake up, Ceil!” he shouted suddenly. “Don’t do this to me! I need you here!”
“I’m worried about his defribilator,” the daughter warned me. “If he gets too worked up…” I couldn’t do anything. This was his wife and he was in pain.
He stood up and went to the other side of the bed and pulled the bed rail down. “I’m going with you.” His tears collected swiftly in his eyes and fell down his cheeks. “Don’t leave, don’t leave.” “Ceil, ceil, ceil.” “Wake, up, Ceil!.” He got in the bed with her and was laying on top of her almost. He had his hand on her pale face. “Wake up, Ceil.” I had to leave the room to perform my other duties, but I was changed through what I had given witness to.
Hours passed. Eventually she was placed in the body bag and a tag was tied to her right big toe. Escort came for her and the room was cleaned. Another patient came up from critical care and his vitals were taken. His pulse was 71.