I'd only seen David at the nursing home a couple of times in the past two months. A busy late spring and summer, plus an extraordinarily painful wipeout on the tennis court kept me at home more than I liked. The weeds grew high around my yard. The usual outside chores went undone as I recuperated. After a solid month, I finally began to regain the full use of my arm. The bruises faded. My hip is still sore to the touch, the place where my full weight came down on the hard court. But it slowly heals too.
I got an e-mail saying things had taken a turn for the worse. On a Saturday, I made it in to see him. David lay on his bed, under a few sheets, his eyes mostly closed, his breathing labored. It reminded me of my grandmother's last days. She slept while I sat with her, but her breathing sounded like she was running sprints. These are contradictions we don't expect.
I felt like all I could do was to sit with him and do Tonglen practice. This is the Tibetan Buddhist practice of giving and taking—we take the negative from whomever we're practicing for, and give out positive qualities—health, loving-kindness, wisdom, in the form of golden light. We're transforming the negative into the positive through this practice. I'd done it before for David. It was good practice for me as well. Initially, I was too overwhelmed with my own negativity to feel I could transform anyone else's. David taught me a lot of things in the brief time I'd known him.
Twenty minutes after I arrived, the hospice aide came in, then the hospice nurse. He was supposed to be repositioned every 45 minutes. The aide swabbed his mouth to keep it moist. He worked hard for every breath, and his mouth dried out quickly as a result. The hospice nurse looked long into his eyes, trying to read some kind of sign. They talked to him, and his eyes opened a little. The rate of his breath never wavered though. His gaze never focused. I wondered what he was picking up from all the activity around him. Another nurse came in and told him she was giving him Roxillin to help with the fluid in his lungs. She squeezed a few dropperfuls into his half-open mouth. I could barely hear a difference as he rasped.
I talked to the aide as she performed her minstrations. Her hands ran over his arms to check if he felt warm or cool. She would adjust his blankets, if necessary. She told him what she was doing, called him “honey”, and leaned in close as she made sure he was as comfortable as possible. He was “actively dying”, she said. One of those ironic terms, like “military intelligence” or “affordable housing”. She said the process could go on for days. She gave me a short pamphlet explaining this process. I asked if I could take it with me, but she said they had none to spare. I could order one if I liked. I noted the organization name on the back, and the website.
She asked me if I knew David's religious affiliation. I didn't. It was always a struggle for him to talk. I'd ask him questions, and at times he would begin to answer clearly, but then his voice would trail off. The words would get caught in his throat. I spent a lot of time leaning in to catch the words he did produce. It was frustrating at times. Since conversation wasn't really an option, I tried to just appreciate the time I could spend reading to him, or showing him pictures I'd taken on my most recent hike. He seemed to enjoy those. The volunteer coordinator had told me that he liked to read, but couldn't hold the books anymore to do so. We spent many hours poring over his box of National Geographic magazines, looking at the pictures. I'd read the captions and the articles to him.
Golf was on the television. The PGA was in Rochester, at Oak Hill. We talked idly about the event. I tried not to observe the aide too closely, so she wouldn't feel self-conscious. I was curious about the job though. She said she'd been doing the job for 20 years. These people face a time in our lives few of us are willing to even think about. They perform an incredibly compassionate act...helping a dying person leave this life and move on to the next. It takes great courage to face this, I think. Since becoming a Buddhist, there isn't a single day I don't think about it. Keeping it foremost in my mind helps me to be a good person. All the rest of life seems like just so much trivia in comparison.
Eventually I had to go. I said a few last words to David. I hope he heard them. The man in the bed hardly resembled the man in the pictures on his corkboard. They were of he and his wife, posing with different locales as the backdrop. They looked like they were from the 50s or early 60s. She had cats eye glasses on and a shy smile. One of them showed the couple on a couch, David's head thrown back in laughter. Now the skin of his face was drawn tightly against his skull. His eyes were glassy. A slim record of a whole life in those pictures, with all of its range of emotions and experiences. Now David's body showed all of its wear. I never knew his age. The knowledge rested heavily on my mind that we're all headed for this end at some point.
I left after saying goodbye. A couple days later, I got another e-mail letting me know that David had passed away at 5pm that day, about 90 minutes after I had left. All those years had reached a conclusion. I said prayers for him, and wished him a safe journey through the bardo, that he may find his way out of the cycle of rebirth. One of my best memories is sitting out in the hall by the nurses station with him, watching the show pass us by. There was always something or someone to make you laugh. David turned his head slightly toward me and chuckled, as if to say, now I've seen it all. His eyes then glinted with mirth. I'll never forget that look on his face. I would liked to have brought that expression to him more often. I only knew him for his final six months on this planet, but he gave me more than he'll ever know.