Much of my last two days was spent in the company of a man whose life forecast was no longer measured in years. In fact, his life was not measured in months, weeks, or even days. His life, after seventy-five years of living, was now measured in hours. He was dying.
I walked into his hospital room around 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon. A television, mounted high on the wall, was tuned to The Weather Network. The television was there for the dying man, though his eyes and ears were likely not paying much attention to the long range forecast which was being aired. You might think it an odd choice of programming for a man living from minute to minute but, if you knew the facts, which you soon will, you might find yourself smiling.
My focus shifted from the television to the man on the bed who I hadn't seen in a few years. His now thin frame was bent at the knees and covered with a blanket. His chest, draped in a johnny shirt, was lifted slightly upward. His chin protruded awkwardly beyond his chest, in the direction of the sky. His skin clung to his chin, following the isobaric contours of the bone underneath. His mouth, agape, exhaled a rattled, gurgling breath which made me feel very uneasy.
I am one of those rare people who has managed to live into his forties without knowing anything about death. It has escaped me, and I have escaped it. On Friday I looked at the face of death and it troubled me at first, but then I started thinking not of death, but of life. My wife's uncle was surrounded by his wife, his kids and his family. His tribe. The room was not socked in with foggy grief, rather it was beaming with sunshine, warmth and love. The stories that were told of his life were like shafts of light, unfettered by the brooding clouds of death. It all seemed fitting for a man who spent his professional career as a meteorologist.
I belong to a tribe known as 'the windsurfers'. We spend, on a yearly average, three or four days a month enjoying the fleeting bounty of the meteorologists' forecast: wind, sun, rain, warmth, cold...often all in the same day. Of those three of four days, perhaps only one is blessed with an accurate wind forecast. Typically we spend thirty days a month cursing the meteorologists, even in February with its twenty-eight days. Many windsurfers spend their afternoons plotting the deaths of the Environment Canada staff while waiting for the wind to arrive, which it often fails to do. No windsurfer has ever successfully managed to kill a meteorologist...all threats being figurative. It's not easy to kill a meteorologist, and my wife's uncle is living proof.
About twenty-five years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He was not alone at the time, as many other individuals in the Halifax region were plagued with the same forecast. Of those people who had the Parkinson's prognosis, only Wendy's uncle Barrie was still living yesterday. He was the Energizer bunny in terms of Parkinson's patients.
Parkinson's disease is not pretty. It robs its keepers of their motor skills, but not of their ability to love or appreciate those who love them. I was reminded of this as I watched Pat sitting by Barrie's side. This is what made Barrie's pending death more of a celebration than a commiseration.
Barrie's wife Pat met him just after he was diagnosed. It would have been easy for the weak to walk away at that point. It would have been easy for the strong to walk away. Many would have walked, but not Pat. She spent a quarter of a century, much of her life, loving Barrie. As I sat in Barrie's hospital room, this was blissfully evident. She stroked his hand as he lay there. It was the most natural thing in the world, like the coming and going of the tides.
We all told stories that somehow involved Barrie, or his colourful family. We shared many laughs together and the discomfort of watching someone die was replaced by the knowledge that it was all worthwhile. Some people live their lives alone, never knowing love. Some people spend their lives with others, never knowing love. Some people, like uncle Barrie, cursed with Parkinson's, lived a life full of love. It hasn't been easy for Barrie, or Pat, but it was real.
As I left the hospital yesterday, I exhaled my last breath of stuffy hospital air and took in a deep breath of the cold Atlantic air. I felt good about death, all things considered. I felt good about life and I felt like honoring it in a very simple, yet profoundly personal way.
I drove my car to a place called Cow Bay where I watched the relentless ocean pulse back and forth. I watched three brave surfers laughing in the face of the forecast. The meteorologists were calling for minus eight degrees, though it was actually minus nine. It's not easy to deter the passionate and strong. The surfers, like Barrie, were proof of that.