Just in the nick of time



July 28, 2000


            I do it every time. I make it to the hospital just in time to say good-bye, but little more. In 1975, I had time because with my Aunt Alice, the death blow didn't arrive until after the operation.

            She was fully conscious when I bid her farewell.

            Not so with Harold, Rich, Albie or my grandmother. I arrived too soon for Harold, he was still sleeping after his first stroke. By the time I got back to him, he had woken, suffered a second stroke, and no longer knew any of us. Rich was already on the respirator when I found out about his hospitalization, and I brought my mother up to sit by his side for the few hours before his death, he already nearly lifeless body immune to everything but our prayers. I never saw my grandmother in the hospital, only in the grave as the casket was lowered. Yet months before her death, Sharon and I met her and made her happy with the announcement of our wedding.

            Yesterday, I had to make the trip again, and proved to myself how little I learned with Harold's death. I saw Frank down the shore about two months ago, after reports said he would not likely survive. Like Harold, he was asleep -- drugged -- when I arrived, and did not hear me or my wishes for his health to improve. Then news came that he had been shifted north to a hospital nearer to me, in my old home town of Passaic. I managed the trip only once although he was miles closer, catching him awake, although most of his communications came in grunts and scribbled notes.

            Yesterday, however, he wrote no note nor did he grunt. If he moved a hand or shifted his jaw, he was lucky. Doctors said he may or may not hear us, depending on the level of the coma, but did not believe he was likely to survive.

            We stayed for several hours, my mother, praying over him as she had over Rich, although she could not complete the rosary over Frank as she had been able to sit through the televised mass with Rich. People came in, checking this and that, on Frank and the other patient, their faces full of concern if not compassion.

            From the room's window, we could see the landscape where Frank and most of his brothers and sisters were born, an irony that may have escaped him, but not me. Rich had lived and died near to the place where he used to drink as a kid, that drink helping to drive him to the grave. On one of the tables, I found Frank's pads, the accumulated messages he personal writings he had made over the last few months. In some, he talked to his brother about the details of his impending death, the threads of his old life that needed to be tucked in so he could finish things cleanly. Some were ramblings and complaints made in private as he sat up in his chair before he latest collapse. All were written on pads typical of a first grader's, the kind most of us first learned to write on -- and indeed, with his shaky hand, the writing looked very much like a child's, another irony, another back to the past sense that seemed to surround each death in our family, as if each person had to make a personal trip back in time before he or she could die. Alice did it by interviewing everyone before her undergoing the surgery that eventually killed her. For Rich and now Frank, it was a more physical trip, a return to the geographical location as well as the frame of mind.

            I slipped those pages into my bag. Later, Frank's brother's wife, asked me if I had read them, her tone dismissing their significance, she calling them "cute," but then, the only document she and her husband seem to really care about is Frank's will.

            To me, these last words scrawled out in desperation and pain matter more than the will does, providing testimony to the man, not his possessions.

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