The stories of Uncle Bobby I share going forward will be just memory now. This Monday morning, I struggle to imagine that I have no tasks which will take me to him in the middle of the day. I feel untethered today, vaguely rudderless. I miss that cantankerous soul who fed my soul so richly in this last year. It has been a gift to share him with you.
On Thursday, July 7, I arrived at Hospice late morning aware that he was at the edge of the end. Tuesday was marked by his restlessness and agitation. Wednesday, deep, undisturbed sleep. He did not speak to me at all on Wednesday and I was afraid I might never hear a complaint, directive, or stream of commentary from his mouth again. The watch had begun, and while his body was present his soul was working its way to the other side. It’s an interior place the dying inhabit, a stark reminder that we are, indeed, born alone and die the same.
He slept most of the day, occasionally calling out for water. Gone was the irritation and frustration which marked the last two weeks. Water was his simple request, only expounding once to tell me,
“I could drink the Atlantic Ocean.”
This lover of Melville and the New England Coastline could drink that ocean. What a thing, that thirst of his. Only death could quench it.
The restlessness he had finally left behind inhabited me that Thursday. With so little to attend to, It was hard for me to light while he lay sleeping. His peacefulness gave me none and I paced the room, walked the halls, sought out anyone at Hospice for conversation. As the hours ticked by, I finally found a jigsaw puzzle, intending to hunker down with that for as long as we needed. Plucking end pieces from the box calmed my nerves as though the exercise were some sort of meditation. It helped me breathe, the distracting nothingness of it, and I was grateful.
Uncle Bobby and I had come to know Liz, one of the Chaplains, during his stay. She is warm, gentle and always approached him with a charming combination of youth and wisdom. I was relieved when she walked in his room. We sat on either side of the sleeping Uncle Bobby, and when he woke once for water, I could see that he was comforted by her presence.
We sat for 30 minutes speaking across from him. Liz cueing me to tell stories of my Uncle, to get a fuller picture of this man she only knows in his fragility.
Then the most curious thing happened.
Without a knock on the closed door of Uncle Bobby’s room, a hospice volunteer walks in with, of all things, a golden retriever named Polly. Now, I’m all for the concept of “comfort” pets, but honestly, their entrance felt intrusive. I want to direct her and her good intentions down the hall to some patient not quite so close to dying. In addition, Uncle Bobby is decidedly not a dog guy and I am armed with a “thanks, but no thanks”.
Before I can get that out, Polly bypasses both Liz and myself and leaps to place her two front paws right on Uncle Bobby’s stomach. I am sure this will lead to either a pained scream or direct ascendancy to heaven via the Hospice roof.
Instead, Uncle Bobby wakes gently, smiles and with both of his useless, weakened hands, rubs Polly’s furry head for what has to be 4 minutes. I am stunned. Polly then gently retreats and before you know it the Hospice volunteer leads her out of the room and Uncle Bobby’s eyes are closed once more.
Liz and I look at each other with bemusement, neither of us quite sure what just transpired, yet return to our quiet conversation. She is hungry now for stories of Bobby as he was before age and health conspired to bring him to this place. I share one of my written stories of his life when he was young and gliding across the frozen ponds of his youth. She is mesmerized, tears streaming down her face, and takes hold of Uncle Bobby’s right hand. He sleeps on and it occurs to me that just maybe he can hear this story himself.
As I finish my tale, there is a bark from the hallway. The bark of a dog out of place in such a solemn place. At the sound, Uncle Bobby opens his eyes, leans forward, and speaks clearly for the first time in days.
“What’s the matter, Polly?”
He then clears his congestion riddled throat, looks at both of us, and says,
“I’m tired now, you two can go.”
I lean in close to him,
“You sleep Uncle Bobby, I’ll be right here, it’s fine.”
With that, he bores into me and, with his characteristic sarcasm wrapped in a wink and a smile, says this,
“Get the hell out of here, YOU have things to do!”
The abruptness and strength of that takes me aback. Liz strokes his arm, says a final word I cannot recall, and backs away from the bed. I lean in, kiss his forehead and say,
“Ok, I love you. I’ll see you in the morning.”
He watches me as I gather my things, I wave to him from the door, but he has no strength to wave in return. His eyes close.
It was 4 PM. Uncle Bobby passed quietly, without struggle, at 9:20 PM, alone, just as he came into this world 90 years ago.
I returned to Hospice that night, after his final breath, to sit with this man I loved so dearly until the funeral home came for his body. It was a beautiful, peaceful time for me. His eyes were open, his face absent the pain and worry of the previous months. I closed his lids for him and kissed his forehead one last time. This Friday we will celebrate his life with a Catholic Mass at Saint Sebastian’s Church in the place he loved the most, Providence, Rhode Island.
When that is done, I will begin to find the life he wants for me. I will try to bring to my new life a modicum of his humility, generosity, and kindness. I love you, Uncle Bobby. Thank you for the gift of your journey.