Sally’s gone …

There is no Sally. At least that I know of. There is a chance that there was a Sally and she was actually lying in the bed of the room across the hall from my Brother’s at the hospice facility.

I sat staring at that empty bed as Michael was brought back from taking a shower and having a shave down the hall. I was sure it would make him feel better as he had been in that hospital bed for as long as I could remember him being there as his life slowly slips away. He’s been at the hospice now for nearly two weeks and is still waiting for the doctors and nurses to find some magical combination of medications to battle the overwhelming nausea and abdominal pain caused by the tumor growing on his pancreas. Nothing to this point has been effective and even sips of water and iced tea result in horrible pain and will not stay down.

His nurse was helping him settle in as I looked back across the hall to that freshly-made bed in a room that served as the final gathering point for the afflicted and their loved ones. Sally’s children, siblings and friends all sat to comfort her as whatever malady she had ran its course to move her beyond this mortal coil. I might have passed them as they sat in the common area down the hall or in the parking lot as we were coming and going.

Walking down the hall to my Brother’s room that day I caught glimpses of a few other Sallys and Toms in other rooms with their families in various stages of hope or grief spending precious moments with those who would be gone too soon. I tried not to make eye contact with any of them as their pain would only compound mine. What struck me the most was that on this walk down that same hall I had traveled just three days before, all of the Toms and Sallys were different from those I saw before. This is how I based my observations of the empty bed across the hall. It had been occupied at some point. Maybe not the last time I was in to visit my Brother, but recently and likely often. The never ending parade of patients through this facility is staggering and sadly constant.

Maybe some went home after being treated for mild ailments associated with the major diseases that would eventually claim them. That was what we had hoped for Michael when he was admitted. But the reality that even some or a likely majority of them would not see the outside of these rooms again was starting to really affect me.

Michael and I sat and for the most part watched television. He was still alert, still had his faculties about him, and we talked a little bit about different things to pass the time. A commercial for a superhero movie came on and I asked him if he had read comic books growing up. Michael is 7 years older than me and as kids we never really spent much time together. We were never in the same school (building) together but teachers remembered him as being a great student. Expectations were somewhat adjusted as my rebellious Sister a year ahead of me set her own path through academia so I was able to ride the wake of both of them through high school settling somewhere in the middle.

“Sure,” he said when asked about the comic books. “Which ones?” I asked as a followed up. Trying to find out more about him and having him plow the recesses of his mind to help distract him from all that is going on around and with him was my goal. “Spiderman, Superman, all of those,” he shared. “Where did you go to get those?”

We went back and forth for a short time about the different stores that were scattered around different parts of Main Street in Munhall back in his day and my time, reflecting on what was there then, what is there now and what is gone forever. His eye opened and closed, fluttered as he conjured up images of those stores, the counters and candy containers that lined the aisles. “Who did you play with or hang out with when you were younger?” I asked this because I really had no clue.

We (I) grew up on School Street in Munhall, but he had lived in a couple of different places before we settled there. He likely had left friends behind in other school districts or streets, but should have known most of the people from our neighborhood. We talked a bit about families on the street who had brothers in age ranges that spanned ours. He had played with older brothers of my friends, some of the same people I hung out with. It was a glimpse of his past I would likely never have gotten if we both remained healthy and lived out our lives outside of a major event like pancreatic cancer.

But in the compressed time frame of how this disease swoops in and consumes its victims, asking such mundane questions serves an important purpose for me to be able to envision what his life was like before he went one way and I another so many years before.

He slowly began to tire as the pain medications were kicking in. A barrage of fast food and “good food fast” commercials were streaming across the television screen and I cursed them as I was sure he was aware of them. He had not had a solid morsel of food in his mouth for days if not weeks. To slowly starve to death is one the most horrible ways to die and this is exactly what is happening to him. One of the nurses said earlier to him, “I wish I could get you a big steak.” I thought it cruel even though I know he meant well. “I wish I could eat one,” was Michael’s response.

As he nodded off to sleep my stomach growled. I had only had time for a couple cups of coffee and a Kind nut bar of some sort before leaving the house to come visit him. I felt guilty that I had an empty spot in my stomach that was complaining that I hadn’t eaten in four hours. I ignored it thinking of how that same feeling multiplied by a hundred must feel for him.

I studied his drawn face as he slept. His full, slightly flush cheeks I always pictured in my head when thinking of my Brother were pale, though cleanly shaven, and his eyes sunken. I felt a shiver as I thought of how much he looked like our father at the end of his battle with transitional cell cancer close to 15 years before. Dad died at home, but the same feeling of hopelessness that gripped us all at that time transcends the location where you are sharing a loved one’s last days.

In this room, which is waiting for the next Sally or Tom to pass through it after we’ve moved on, Michael was now mercifully sleeping and hopefully dreaming of enjoying that steak or whatever else his last meal(s) should be. The doctors will continue trying to find the right combination of medications to give him some more time with us, and if I could watch him enjoy any meal without being sick even if it was a ramekin of pudding, it would bring (more) tears to my eyes.

I hold out hope that he can get home. That he’ll be able to pass peacefully in his own bed like our father, surrounded by me and my sisters. It might be a lot to ask for at this point. But there’s always hope.

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