NDJ:4 Joy Mills, MDiv


I awake with a start that last night. Sleeping on an air mattress, as close as I can get to Lew in his hospital bed, I crane my neck to look at the ship’s clock on the wall by the big window in the family room. The glow of the nightlight barely illumines its face. Two a.m. I must give him morphine by mouth every four hours. As his body drifts toward death, he can no longer swallow the pain pills; it will be seventy-two hours before the morphine patch sufficiently alleviates the terrifying bone pain of the metastasized prostate cancer. I struggle against the buoyancy of the mattress as I push myself up to standing. Another time this might be comical, the mattress and I fighting for supremacy, my being at a clear disadvantage, having little leverage, the mattress so low to the floor.

Instead alert although not fully awake, in a moment I am on the far side of the bed so that I can see Lew’s face turned toward the window. Twin waves of shock and recognition surge through me. The change is subtle, yet in that instant I know: he is dying. His face is distinctly different: more sunken? Ashen? Thinned? I am not certain. I simply know. Conscious of what I must do and half conscious of the dread I feel, I turn toward what must be done.

In a daze I give him the morphine. Then I go back around the bed and drag the big reclining chair against the bed rail. Putting on the winter robe Peggy sent me, I yank a blanket from the mattress and wrap it around me as I sit down. I begin to talk to this man whom I have loved for thirty years: “Thank you for all you have given me.” Immediately I realize this is not true to the complexity of who we are. I begin again, “I am so thankful for all that we have given one another. We are who we are tonight because of our sharing our lives with one another.” Touching him gently I continue talking to him, remembering our life together, remembering who we have become, remembering who he is. This is no dramatic death scene with me snuggled up next to him in the bed, holding him in my arms as he lies dying. His body is too fragile for anything but the lightest touch. I am with him: with “all that I am, all that I have,” I honor him.

I look up into the huge garden window we chose many years ago. Its slanted glass roof opened the room wide, bringing the outdoors closer to our senses. It has been a blessing to have Lew sleeping beneath this window, knowing each morning he has wakened to see birds on the feeder. In the brilliant dark of this night, his whimsical design of tiny white Christmas lights glows on the hill rising behind the house. It is an absolutely clear January night.

My eyes travel up the steep hill. For the first time I see the almost full moon shining just above the black web of tree branches framed against the deep blue sky. Looking closer I see a rainbow encircling the brightly lit moon. I do not have my glasses on; perhaps this is fatigue combined with fuzzy vision. I rub my eyes. I carefully note every crystalline color of the perfect ring: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, purple, each in its proper order. No, I am seeing distinctly. In the same moment, still disbelieving, I take in the five muted brown reflections of the moon coming toward us through the high treetops. Each reflection is a bit smaller and more clearly mottled like the moon’s surface than the one above it. I continue to watch, expecting these phenomena to disappear before my eyes. They remain. My shoulders relax; I breathe more deeply. The images soothe me as I touch Lew and talk, now describing to him what I am trying to believe I am seeing.

Later in the night I look again. The moon reflections have moved off to the right of the moon as it has descended across the treeline and down the sky to our right. I glance at the clock again. Five a.m. Have I dozed, wakened and spoken again? I am not certain. I am with Lew so completely that time has lost its meaning, as have waking and sleeping.

I lie down again on the mattress to sleep, waking startled. Seven a.m. I jump up. How could I have slept? How could I have slept through the time for the morphine? I do not wonder whether Lew is still alive. All night I have heard his slow even breathing, telling me he is there with me. Its even and steady rhythm reassures me. I move around the bed to the other side of the bed to give him the morphine, once again talking to Lew, telling him what I am doing. I do not ask myself whether he can swallow; I just do what needs to be done. When the liquid touches his lips and tongue, Lew swallows reflexively, gasping a little. I think, “He needs some water to wash down the strong taste” and give him a dropperful. This time he is startled and chokes a bit. For the next twenty minutes I stay with him, breathing with each of his breaths. I am loving him.

Our daughter Sandy wanders into the room, tying her robe. I am stunned to remember that two of our daughters have been asleep upstairs. And just as stunned that they slept through the night, not coming down to see how their father was doing. A few minutes later Sarah comes in, pulling on her robe. The front door opens and Lori, Lew’s companion and my helper over the past two weeks, comes in. We stand around the bed like sentinels: Sandy and I are opposite one another by Lew’s head; Sarah is next to me on the window side; Lori across from Sarah. Lew’s head remains turned toward me.

A moment after we have taken our places, Lew’s eyes suddenly fly open and he takes in and lets out a huge breath. His eyes close again. Sarah screams; I draw in my breath, horrified. Can he die this quickly? Sandy says, “He’s still breathing.” She is watching his carotid artery. As each shallow breath ebbs away, she says, “Not yet.” At 7:47 the last of his breath leaves his body. Sarah notices the time.

Lewis has died. He has been reabsorbed by spirit. I do not see anything happen. And yet I am aware of his having left through the right corner of the window a bit above and to the left of his head. This makes no sense, which does not bother me. Like the rainbow around the moon and the five moon reflections coming toward us. Like Sarah’s dream that night in which her father will tell her, “I am more real than you think I am.” There is more.