I think that I will always define tenderness by those moments. Those moments I watched a wife caress her dying husband, her grief standing silently at the edge of the room.
Unbelievably, it was his third stroke. At age forty-one. I looked at his CAT scan and my heart sank. A massive bleed; a fatal pressure that was slowly crowding the life from his brain. No way to get to it surgically. He could not breath. So deep was he in coma that his jaw, unless held, would sag into a strangling grasp on his own airway. I bent over him, holding his jaw in such a way as to keep his airway open.
“Is he suffering?” She asked me the second most important question pressing her.
“There is no pain.”
She spoke as if at an altar. “Will he live?” There it was.
What do you say when you know the answer and the answer is an awful thing? “No, ma’am.” She looked at me and nodded her head. I had confirmed what she already knew.
I watched her talking to him as if soothing a child. I watched her tears fall and spatter helplessly, noiselessly against his chest and begin to roll away. She bent over him, her head close to mine. Three strangers in the intimacy of a death watch. A patient, a wife… and me. All powerless, by any art or supplication, to change what must soon be.
Her fingertips spoke her love for him; they touched his eyelashes and smoothed his death-tangled hair. It was a woman’s touch.
I relocated my grip. “Why did you do that?” she whispered.
“So you can better touch his face.” I paused. “I’m not sure why, but we need to do that.”
She nodded, and touched his face. If love could have healed him, he’d have arisen from the stretcher and gone home with her. But he was shortly bound for his Heavenly home.
She tended him; and tried to draw from him his sickness; her grieving fingers on mottling skin; loving touches to eyebrows and lash; smoothing his hair yet again. Our faces are who we are, in some way I don’t understand.
The end came. His breath will never more fall upon her cheek. She cried quietly. Afterwards, she murmured to me, “I’m glad you were here.”
I was glad, too. Not all special moments are happy; some are desolating. But we – all of us – are supposed to comfort, even when we can’t help.
Look for Lucky’s new book, “The Oath of Hippocrates”- stories from nearly 40 years in Emergency Medicine, available locally and online.By Lucky Garvin [email protected]