Friday, March 03, 2006

Being Alone at Death

SO, I made it into work at 6:15 this evening. This was fifteen minutes before my scheduled start time and I figured that I'd have enough time to buy a coffee to accompany my protein bar. Wrong! I wasn't here five minutes before we were called to a death, an elderly man who died after a long struggle with a disease.

What made me so sad is that he died alone. His mouth agape with his jaw slightly askew and his lower lip sucked into his mouth, a consequence perhaps of his lack of dentures and his dying breath. His hands rested at his sides and his bare feet jutted out from under the cotton blanket, toenails yellowed and untrimmed. And he was totally alone. No family. No friends. No one.

This makes me wonder how many of us are really alone. The idea of dying alone and unloved scares the hell out me. I can't help but wonder what mother may have held this man as a baby and delighted in his new life, a new mother and a new father who selected a name for this child and spent evenings discussing his unfolding future. And over time he probably loved and lost; probably made friends and lost contact with them; he probably knew others and was known by others. I should hope that his life had meaning for others, that his name will be said with a wry smile or a teary eye and that a story will be told about him.

But tonight there was no one to be with him when he breathed his last.

I realize now more than ever how lucky I am to be surrounded by people I love and people who love me. I have my blood family, my feis/Irish dancing family, my music family, and my Jesuit brothers. But it occurs to me that there are many of us, despite how many people we live with, despite the number of years we've been married, who will live and who will die alone. People who will live lives of quiet isolation who are neither known or knowing of another; people who neither love nor are loved by anyone. And they will die alone...they will die as they lived.

I'm not saying this is the fate of my patient. But I can't help but muse on this truth that there are many who die completely alone and abandoned. Homeless persons, the mentally ill, people estranged from their families. Married persons who gave up communicating years earlier but stayed married to avoid the inconvenience of a divorce; religious men and women who stayed in community out of the fear of finding a new way of life.

Tonight I count my blessings to know how I am loved. It's sobering and humbling, really. And I hope that those in my life who have loved me into the man I am today - friends, family, Jesuits - know how much I love them and that, regardless of the distance between us, that none of us is ever alone.
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