Friday, January 29, 2016

H. P. Lovecraft – "The White Ship" (1967)

Sailing on the sea of dreams
How far away it seems
Sailing upon the white ship

I witnessed death for the first time exactly two weeks ago.  

My 90-year-old father, who had been admitted to the hospital ten days earlier, was unresponsive the last day of his life.  

He had opened his eyes a few times the day before, although it's not clear he recognized me or could comprehend the handmade sign reading "Sarah's going to have a baby" that I held in front of his eyes.  (My daughter Sarah had recently told us she was pregnant.  Her baby will be my first grandchild, and would have been my father's first great-grandchild.)

But he never opened his eyes that last day.  He snored softly, but breathed without apparent difficulty.  The nurses gave him no morphine or other pain medication – he wasn't restless, and showed no signs of discomfort, so there was no need for it.

Edvard Munch, "By the Deathbed" (1896)
A few minutes before he breathed his last breath, a young nurse entered the room and took his vital signs.  My mother watched her like a hawk – she often looked upon the people who tended to him in the hospital with suspicion, ready to protest if they did anything that disturbed his repose, or seemed to cause him discomfort.

I lowered the lights in the room after the nurse left.  I then sat in a recliner on the left side of his bed, holding his hand.  My mother sat in an identical recliner on the other side of his bed, holding his other hand.  

She was exhausted, and nodded off almost immediately.  My mother had accompanied her husband of 68 years to the hospital, staying by his side for ten days and nights.  (She had left his room only once, when my sister dragged her against her will to a doctor's appointment.)  

In the silence of the room, his breathing was audible, but no more so than that of the average person sleeping on his or her back.  Suddenly there was no sound – but after a few seconds, the soft snoring resumed.

August Spiess, "Reunion in Death" (1892)
A moment later, it stopped again.  I put my hand on his chest and felt no rising-and-falling motion, but wasn't sure that meant anything.  His skin did seem cool to the touch, but that could have been my imagination.

I had asked the palliative care nurse the previous day to explain what would happen to him at the end.  (I wanted to know myself, but mostly to be prepared so I could minimize the shock to my mother.)  The nurse told me that he might struggle a little, or might die very quietly – there was no way to be sure.  

She advised me that it wasn't unusual for breathing to stop temporarily once or several times, and then resume briefly before stopping forever.  If I thought that had happened, she told me, I should ask a nurse to check him.  The nurse would listen through a stethoscope for a full minute.  If she heard nothing, she would ask a second nurse to check.

Ary Scheffer, "Death of Géricault" (1824)
I left the room to find a nurse, then stood just outside the door while she listened to his heart and lungs.  When she kept listening – ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds, and longer – I knew why.  She turned away from him and mouthed "I'm sorry" to me.

While she went to find a second nurse, I called my sister, who had left the hospital an hour or so earlier.  (She had spent the previous night sleeping in a chair in our father's room, and it was my turn to spend the night with our mother.)  I told her what was happening and told her to get back to the hospital as quickly as she could.  

The second nurse then confirmed that my father was no longer breathing – that he was dead.

Willes Maddox, "William Beckford
on his Deathbed" (1844)
The nurses’ comings and goings woke my mother.  I could have said everything was fine and told her to go back to sleep, waiting until my sister arrived to break the news to her.

But I knew the task wasn't going to get any easier.  So I told her he was gone.

I finally persuaded her to leave with my sister at about one in the morning.  She was bereft, and said two things over and over.  First, that she have taken better care of him – she seemed to believe it was her fault he had died.  Second, that she wanted to be with him.

I remained until almost three, talking to the nurses and the hospital chaplain to fill the time until someone from the mortuary arrived and took my father's body away.

As I said above, this was my first encounter with death.  It seemed to me that my father didn't die so much as he simply ceased to live.  One moment he was breathing, and the next moment he wasn’t.

The "H. P. Lovecraft" album cover
H. P. Lovecraft was a short-lived psychedelic band that formed in Chicago in 1967, moved to San Francisco, and broke up in 1969.  Their music will remind you of early Jefferson Airplane and It's a Beautiful Day.

"White Ship," which was released on the group's eponymous debut album, was named after a 1919 story by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, the group's namesake.  It's a beautiful song that happened to turn up on my iPod the when I took a walk on the last day of my father's life.

Here's "White Ship":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. Gary, I've now lost a father, step-father and father-in-law: despite some hopes, I've always been 'else' when the moment came.

    Each death is its own thing. As should be.

    Some are more ... what can we say? ... closer to or further from some imagined ideal.

    This was a good one. You are blessed. Hold your sister (and all) close.