The first time I met “Gary,” we ended up talking for over two hours. He was in his late 60s and had throat cancer, evidenced by a protruding plum-sized tumor on his neck which he covered with turtlenecks. He explained his spiritual beliefs and told me he wasn’t afraid to die. In fact, when he found himself saying “die,” he would correct himself to say “transition.” He told me he intended to come back after he died and guide me. I had so much to learn from him and he had so much to teach.
However, as Gary’s health declined, he was less excited about the prospect of dying and became rather anxious. Most of our conversations ended up being consumed by practical matters about his medical care. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that you have to take care of the basic needs before you can attend to the spiritual, and that’s where we ended up – at the bottom of the pyramid talking about shelter and safety.
In what would be the final week of his life, his health had declined and he ended up in inpatient hospice. The basic needs were being addressed and suddenly we were back to attending to the spiritual. He would drift in and out of consciousness, sometimes even while standing. While he was “sleeping,” he was very physically active with his whole body. Often it would almost be like a game of charades as I would try to interpret what he was pantomiming. I saw him eating (baked beans) and I saw him start a car. When he woke up, I would ask him what he was experiencing and he would tell me as much as he could remember.
One time I noticed he was in conversation and when he woke up I asked, “What were you doing?”
“Negotiating,” he said.
“With whom?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
I said, “Well, what were you negotiating?”
“They were taking parts of my life and twisting it and making me look at things in a different way.”
This intrigued me. “How does that make you feel? Does that make you happy because you’re seeing things in a new light?”
He furrowed his brow at me. “No, it doesn’t make me happy! They’re making me think about things I’ve been avoiding for 60 years.”
Later he would look at me in confusion. He finally told me that he was having trouble distinguishing between worlds. He also said, “I’m having trouble distinguishing between you and my mother.”
I must have made a face, because to be mistaken for a woman his mother’s age was a little unsettling. He went on to explain, “My mother died when she was old, but she is coming back to me as your age.”
I said, “Well, what is she doing?”
“She’s trying to ply me with chocolate cake.”
During his four-day dying process, Gary reported that he saw many loved ones, including his beloved collie Samantha who had died last summer. He frequently had dreams of boats, motorcycles and cars. He was definitely planning on taking a trip!
The night before he died, Gary literally tried to sneak out of the facility. I wasn’t there, but apparently he popped his head out the door to his room and tried to make a run for it past the nursing station. Fortunately, the nurses saw him and directed him back to his room. He knew he had somewhere to go and was anxious to get there. He insisted on staying fully dressed and leaving his tennis shoes on until the very end.
I wasn’t at his bedside when he actually died, but that didn’t surprise me – he was always very independent. He waited until I went to go get a Diet Coke out of the vending machine. The nurse panicked when she came to find me, but I wasn’t upset. I understood it was his way of downplaying the “transition,” which he considered to be a non-event. We don’t die, I remembered him telling me.
Though I only knew Gary for three months, the experience of knowing him will stay with me for a lifetime.
Lizzy Miles 2011