Our neighbor Ric has been sick with lung cancer for around a year or so. We’ve known him for the six years we have lived here.We’d always invited him over for holidays and parties, and he’d let us use his pool. We had become closer as a result of his illness and his need for more help.
He’s had numerous health issues, in addition to the cancer, that have plagued him and have caused him to be in and out of the hospital this past year. As we were driving home this Sunday from Phoenix, we received a call from another neighbor that Ric was back in the hospital. Ric had fallen down and was having some trouble breathing. It sounded like the hospital was taking good care of him and I made plans to visit him Monday afternoon.
Ric looked better than the other times I’d visited him in the hospital, but seemed a bit down. He explained that this was his second visit in a week. He hadn’t understood why they had released him in the first place, given he still had the issues he was brought in with (and frankly, neither did I, especially with no family or hospice care to help out). He was concerned that they might not let him go this time, if his congestion (possibly pneumonia) didn’t go away. I reassured him that he’d fought every thing else off and would be home soon. Ric made a point of tapping his arm with the DRN bracelet and told me to make sure everyone knew. He did this several times. I told him that I’d make sure everyone knew and made plans to visit him the next day.
As soon as I got Sophia home from her first day of school, I received a call from the hospital that Ric had passed out and fallen down while using the bathroom (the nurses were right there with him). Once they found a pulse and got him on oxygen (remember, he was DNR), he began to throw up blood. He also had aspirated some blood. It was clear he had some sort of internal bleed again. They wanted to know what to do…Ric had me down as a person to consult. They were also trying his family to find out what kind of comfort measures to do. I got ahold of Ric’s family and they asked me to represent them at the hospital. I asked my friend Stephanie to care for Sophia and called the nurse to say I was on my way. She told me she was telling Ric and he nodded and smiled.
When I walked it, I really wasn’t sure I could do it. At our old house, our other neighbor Mark had also suddenly developed lung cancer (from working in the mines) and had major complications right from the start. I walked into the room to visit him and had to leave immediately because I just couldn’t stand to see such a vibrant person deteriorated into who was lying on the bed, hooked up to millions of wires and tubes. That was selfish, I know. Mark had family to be with him; Ric didn’t. I walked in, sat down, and held his hand. I began to talk to him.
The nurses said he was just deep asleep, that he had had a rough afternoon. What an understatement. Tubes were hooked up to drain the bleed from his stomach. He was on oxygen. His color was an ashy grey from loosing so much blood. Tubes with fluids and plasma were going into his arms, which were covered with bruises everywhere – simply because his circulation system was working so poorly, it was difficult to find a working vein.
I told him about Sophia’s first day at school, what we did in Maine, and anything else I could think of. Ric woke up a few hours later. He wasn’t really lucid – he keep telling me that he had to get out of there, that he’d already been declared dead, and that the doctors couldn’t keep him from his burial plans. I told him I understood and that everyone was just trying to make him comfortable. Eventually, the nurses said he was as stable as he could be and they were just going to keep pumping him with fluids. Just before Ric fell asleep, I told him I was going to go home and that I’d see him in the morning. He nodded. I told them to call me if anything changed.
I received a call around 1 am, but somehow slept through it. I called at 6 am and was told Ric pulled some of his cords out and had lapsed into a coma. His brother had been called and was flying out. I told the nurses I couldn’t come until I dropped Sophia off at school, but made plans to sit with him all day.
I came with my computer and showed Ric pictures from our trip and talked about how I just found a huge cucumber in the garden that morning while watering. He was still in the coma and his breathing became even more labored. But he looked at peace – no moaning or grimacing to indicate pain (as the doctors and nurses kept telling me). I just kept talking until I couldn’t and sat there holding his hand.
One doctor came in and told me that he was doing what they called “pre-terminal” breathing, that this is typical. A few hours later, another doctor came in and said Ric could go at any moment. There were many moments when the pauses between breaths seemed so long, I thought that was it. But he held on.
I knew his brother would not arrive at the hospital until 8 pm or so. I had to pick up Sophia by 4pm and arranged with the nurses that they would always have someone with him – that he would not be alone. I would be back by 8 pm with his brother.
I called every hour for an update – no change. Once I received word from Ric’s brother that he was in town and on route to the hospital, another neighbor and I drove (with Ric’s car for his brother to use) to the hospital. We picked him up and I took everyone to Ric’s room. He was the same, struggling to breath.
We sat down, holding his hand and began to talk to each other about the Ric we knew (we had never met before that night). We told stories of Ric as a child, what he did for work after he had joined the military, and his favorite things – old movies, playing the piano, and the dogs he’d had over the years. We talked about how shy and reserved he was with people, which lead most people to think he disliked them. That may have been the case anyways, but his brother told me that Ric always mentioned my family to him and how we tried to include him in holidays and daily life. As we laughed over Ric’s crazy food diet (which precluded him from eating much of anything he liked, most of the time), Ric took his last shallow breath and exhaled. We just looked at him and waited. The pause went on. And on. Until finally Ric’s brother told me to call for the nurses. Ric had passed away.
I will never forget that night. Ric’s fight was over and now he is not in pain or discomfort anymore – I know this and am grateful. It’s always hardest for those who are left to pick up the pieces and move on. We had known Ric for 6 years and I feel like we probably scratched the surface in getting to know him. It makes me look around and think about what else I’ve left too long because I thought there isn’t enough time right now, but soon. There seems to be a lot more than I realized. Maybe I need to work on that…
Life is short. Make time to do what matters. Tell people you love and value them. Show them. You just never know.