Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Free Exit

I headed out on Hwy64, quickly accelerating as I pulled through the last flashing red light just outside of Morrison. As I hit the long and vacant stretch of road westward bound into the vast plains of the panhandle, I sipped my coffee, almost chugged it down really, and its sweet and bitter warmth flowed down into my gut. I sighed as I shifted the beetle into sixth gear, the turbo deisel making a steady hum like the buzz of a bee.
The pastures around me were covered in frost and the morning glow was beginning to creep in and dispell the darkness behind me. I watched the sunrise in my rearview mirror, a glorious winter sunrise, orange and pink, but mostly gold, and it inched its way across the horizon, licking the darkness away. I focused again on the road ahead and the darkness that I was still driving into with gusto.
The coffee in my gut twisted into a knot and for a moment I thought I would have to pull over and share my coffee with the Oklahoma plains. The moment passed and I buzzed on, pulling past a small country church and a sign that said " County cemetary" with an arrow pointing south down a dirt road.
I thought about the decisions I had made and the ones coming ahead... and the moments in between the two that required too much sitting and thinking and not enough action. I wondered if I would have the strength I needed to make it through. "Of course I will," I told myself " Becuase that is who I am and that is what I do. Faithful, dependable, predictable."
The Sunday before I recieved a dissapointing but not unexpected call about Frank.
Funny and lively Frank, our neighbor for 5 years, who now lived in a nursing home in the Western part of the state. I drove over to see him once a week for the last 14 months, increasing my visits to 3 times a week in the last 8 weeks. His illness started with a simple cough, which turned into a cold and then pnemonia, and his body kept filling up with fluid becuase his kidneys couldnt keep things flushed out fast enough.
He was 73 and had no family to call his own. He had a distant cousin who lived in the Dakotas- I wasnt even sure if it was North or South. I stepped in to fill the role as best I could, and had somehow assumed the role of medical power of attorney and if something were to happen, would assume the role of executor of his estate.
The Dr on the other end of the line said that his heart had stopped. "Did I want to keep the DNR in tact or did I want them to try to start his heart?"
I didnt expect this decision to be so hard. I knew his wishes but weither he took another breathe on this earth or not now depended on me.
" Please give it a try. " I said as I grabbed my purse and my keys and scrambled for the door. By the time I drove the hour and a half there, he was resting in his room, wheezing each breathe in and out of his skinny frame. I sat in the still room, silent but for his ragid breathing, and wondered how life gets to such a point. I remembered him just months before, laughing and carrying on, telling story after story of his travel and adventure and the many years he spent serving our country. He lived life hopping from one place to the next, only sitting still for the five years he lived next door to us after his retirement. He was forever the bachelor, except for a short and lively marriage at the age of 71. His wife, Gerty, lived only 7 months after they wed and died of a stroke in her sleep on her 68th birthday.
Three hours after I arrived I heard him trying to stir. He cleared his throat several times and in a raspy voice he said my name.
"The last time I saw him he was only a baby." He said in a whisper. I turned my head to look into his sad eyes, cloudy blue under his silver brows.
" He was my boy. I got a girl pregnant just before I enlisted and we married on an R&R. I got shipped straight into the war and the only thing I had to offer her was my tiny monthly paycheck and a letter for each day of the week. I only saw him the one time, when I came back from my tour of duty. She told me that day that she had met someone else that could take care of her better. She moved 3 states away and took Adam with her. I never said "Don't" and I never said bye. I didnt know how to be a daddy. I dont even know his middle name."
I asked Frank if I should find him.
He stared at the wall for several minutes. "No, he never got to watch me live, better not to have to see me die."

Frank's condition slowly deteriorated after Sunday. His body began to fill with fluid again and this time I knew I couldnt make him hang onto this life with no one here to stay for and so much pain. He got placed on a ventilator again on Tuesday and was sedated to a state in which he was not aware of any comings or goings. He was no longer himself.
On Thursday I made the decision via phone conference with his doctors to pull lifesupport, and now I was on my way to sit with him as his body began to die.
I downed the last sip of coffee and punched through my ipod, listening to a few seconds of each song and then deciding that nothing sounded quite right.
There was no appropriate song to listen to when one was on a death march.... no song perhaps except the sound of silence.
I rolled down my window and let the frigid morning air slap against my face as I fought hard against the panic that was sitting within me.
I slowed down to take the last free exit off of the turnpike, the last free exit before I had to take responsibility for a myriad of decisions, the last free exit before I watched life slow down until it slipped away.