Who knew that the sixth time something happens it still has the capacity to take one’s breath away, to give pause, to cut to the core? If the first is a surprise and the third is old hat, then certainly the sixth time should be tedious and uneventful. Not the case. At all. The passing of her father’s sixth roommate in not quite four and a half years shook Sylvia. One would think that she would have grown accustomed to death, that it would have become easier to handle and accept, especially in light of the daily visits to the nursing home. Not true. Not for her anyway.
Out of respect and privacy, I’ll refer to the dear man who left this world at around midnight, late Friday/early Saturday last week, as Mr. H. He was frail, ailing, aging, and I’m hoping he was at peace. I’d like to think he left on his own terms and had made peace with himself and anyone and anything else that gnawed at him in this life, but who knows, right? I only know what I know and what I saw.
Mr. H had been at the skilled nursing residence for some time; it was his home for better or worse. He and his older brother had made the skilled nursing facility their mutual residence in their later years, living and rooming there together as each dealt with his own infirmities. They had each other and that was a lot. Maybe that was everything. I think it just may have been! When his brother died, Mr. H moved upstairs into my father’s room. In my mind, once people share space for an extended period of time whether under the best or worst of circumstances, it makes them family–automatic family because (1) you are living together and not necessarily by choice; and (2) you’ll be privy (whether you want to or not) to all of the intimate and likely not-so-pretty details of the other’s life- family dysfunction and bodily functions. Let’s face it, folks. Once you’ve shared space, passed gas, and dressed and undressed in front of another day in and day out, you are no longer strangers. Again, for better or worse. So, Mr. H became family. Although he and my father never engaged in conversation, I do think that each found quiet comfort knowing that there was life, another being, just a few feet away.
Here is why six is so tough though. I came to know one through five through their visitors, their friends and families. Whether frequently or sporadically, each was visited at some point by someone who cared. I had the honor of seeing each man engage in life at various moments and experience joy, even if only for a few minutes at a time; when a daughter or son dropped by on the way to or from work; or when a wife was able to find the physical and mental fortitude and/or transportation to make the trek. The little chunks of time shared with a loved one made all the difference. The “brothers” whom my father came to know in his own way, they were allowed to be who they had been all their lives, authentically and intrinsically themselves because of their relationships and loves, rather than who they had become as a result of the injustice and weaknesses of their illnesses. Six, Mr. H, was different. He never had a visitor. He hadn’t had one since at least six months before the pandemic. Think about that. Not one person. No one in this world felt the need or desire to visit Mr. H. Did he really have no one?
I could write forever ad nauseum about this, but I won’t. Frankly, it’s upsetting; and those to whom I’m trying to make a point are those who failed my father and will likely fail others who hang on to a love that cannot be reciprocated or offered unconditionally. I don’t know. I’m not their judge, but I do recognize a hubris, a lack of accountability, and a seeming nonchalance about their role in a loved one’s final days. Mr. H at some point in his life engaged with the world. Perhaps he was mean, a recluse or curmudgeon. Again, I don’t know. However, don’t we as human beings owe one another something – a morsel of decency and a little tenderness, especially in the end? Just as we all came into the world being anticipated and welcomed, wouldn’t it be lovely to leave the world or to help someone leave the world knowing that it’s not all bad? He or she mattered. If all another teaches us in the course of his, her (or their) life is how not to live and what we don’t want, then they have done this world and likely all of humanity a huge service. They have made your life, my life, more meaningful.
Six was hard. Mr. H, I hope you know that you made a difference. You were family. I will not forget you. May you rest in peace. Say hello to your brother and brothers, my father among them now.
Sometimes, almost always these days, Sylvia hastens to remind herself that we only learn how to live by watching how others are treated or mistreated, especially as they approach death. How to say hello comes naturally and easily. How we learn to say goodbye? Not so easy. How will you say goodbye?