I ask permission to hold his hand. Even though my friend is not talking, I feel asking is always a better option. They can hear us, and they let us know when they do not want to be touched. I receive permission to hold his hand and while mindlessly caressing his fingers, I watch every wrinkle disappear. It is like a painter that takes a magic brush and wipes every frown, every worry out of that oh-so-loved face. It is gone… All I see is peace and tranquility.
The last two and a half years, this man struggled with every illness imaginable and each time he made it. Each time we were told that he was going to die, yet each time he truly pulled through. This time, however, hearing the rattle, I knew there is no return from this last phase in life. The rattle is awful to hear for the one listening but means absolutely no pain for the person going through it. This, I clearly see in his face.
I speak softly, letting him know that I am thankful for him being in my life and the opportunity to hold his hand for his last breath. My wish was that he never felt alone or abandoned by anyone.
And then, from one breath to the next, he is gone.
I have done as he had requested. I have seen my friend through till his last breath. The children arrive to also say their last goodbyes and to make sure all the clothes we chose are in order. The three of us leave the hospital while the nurses take care of him. When we re-enter the hospital room to say our last goodbyes and to inspect that we did everything according to his wishes, we all three burst into laughter. We are totally slap-happy from exhaustion, emotion, and sadness. We look at him on the bed, dressed as if he is truly traveling to California with sunglasses and his hat. We just know in our hearts he would have loved this. I felt such a beautiful harmony in this room with us laughing together and our deceased friend and father in the middle. One last kiss before his body is brought to the morgue…
We all leave deflated. In my case, I go to a hotel room where I cannot sleep, where every last moment replays in my head yet I know I had done all I could to see it through properly.
As it is the weekend, I am told he will be transferred to the coffin in a few days. And, as it is the law, they always wait 15 minutes before closing the coffin in case any family members want to say one last farewell. In our case, nobody wants to except for me. I tell his children I need to do this for him and for myself, to keep my promise to see him through to the end. Spontaneously, his children decide to come with me.
We are a bit shocked when we open the room and he is lying on a very narrow bed of sorts with a huge blanket on him. The room is cold. I put down the flowers that are meant for the coffin. I have one last look at his face. The funeral home people come in and ask us to leave the room so they can put the deceased in the coffin. Again, I ask to see him one last time. His children ask why. I say, “I just want to make sure he is in the coffin.”
I say my goodbyes and touch his chest. One last caress on a very cold body. Bye for now until we meet again. I have loved you.
The coffin is sealed. It is to be transported to another city and the police come and do this. All these things I learn that I know nothing about!
We leave and go to the funeral home where we wait for the other friends to bid their last farewell. A very short brief ceremony, just the way he wanted it.
The funeral home master of ceremonies talks, which feels silly, as he knows nothing of the man lying in this coffin. The words seem hollow and fake somehow. But then he invites his daughter to talk. It is beautiful what she says and very much like the man we remember. Then it is my turn…
I get through the first few lines without wavering until I look at his two children and the friends in the room and realize that although I was his best friend, I knew very little of these last 12 years of his life. I do know that the last two and half years were a struggle with illness after illness. Hospital in, hospital out… This man was like a cat with 12 lives, not 9. His children and I, we three got a chance to do it right this time. We all gave each other the room to love, to grieve, to be upset and to go through all the emotions together.
I falter for a moment when I recount to his children how much he appreciated their support in these last 2 years of his illness. How incredibly grateful he was to have them help him and be by his side.
When this is all done and everyone has left, his daughter and I are left next to the coffin. The funeral master of ceremonies asks if we want to witness the lighting of the flame for the cremation. I look at his daughter and I answer, “Yes, we will.” Definitely the last phase. The daughter takes my hand and I look at her with tears in my eyes and say, “We did it till the very end.”
What is mind boggling to me is that less than 3 hours later we are able to pick up the urn that contains his remains. Holding the urn feels surreal. This is what is left: ashes that are heavier than I had anticipated.
In my mind, I hear the song “Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind…” Appropriate lyrics to go through my mind. But it makes me so sad…
I take my friend to my hotel room and spend most of the night looking at the bag with the urn in it. I have to fulfill one last promise to get the ashes to Santa Barbara, California, where his oldest and best friend lives and where he had hoped that together we might spread his ashes while drinking a glass of Deutz Champagne…
P.S.: I have some thoughts on last farewells and the hospice experience that I will be publishing in a week or so, when I am ready. But in case you missed it, here are my thoughts on the hospice staff that I encountered during my friend’s closing days.