My father-in-law died Wednesday morning. He was having a conversation with his care giver when she noticed that he had stopped talking. When she turned around to check on him, she discovered that he had stopped breathing. CPR was initiated, an ambulance was dispatched. The staff at the facility where he lived tried to revive him but he never came back. Ken was seventy-six years old and his health had been declining for some time, but this still came as a shock to all of us who knew him.
My wife called me as soon as she heard. At that point all she knew was that he’d been unresponsive for ten minutes, but that an ambulance was on the way. There was still hope at that point. Maybe they could save him.
I met my wife at the hospital an hour later, but by then it was already too late. Ken never regained consciousness. I found my wife and mother in law together in a small waiting room. The hospital chaplain was there as well. He asked if we wanted to see the body. My wife was unsure, my mother in law too distraught to make a decision. They ultimately decided that they did want to see him.
The chaplain entered the room first with my wife and mother in law following. Ken lay on a gurney, his head tilted back as if he were looking up to the ceiling, or to heaven. His face was unshaven, his flesh drained of all color. My mother in law touched him and immediately pulled her hand away. My wife tried to look at him but couldn’t do it. She turned to the side, her chest convulsing, eyes now focused on the floor.
Maybe it was good that we saw him, to know that it wasn’t a mistake, to see for ourselves that he was truly gone. But that image is one that I may never be able to erase. My father in law when he had his health was a vigorous man, full of life and laughter. This final image had none of these things.
I’ve been married for twenty years. When I first met my father in law he was just a little older than I am now. Twenty years. Death is inevitable, and yet we spend our entire lives pretending it doesn’t exist. I’ve got twenty years to keep pretending. Is that enough?