How can he be gone? He filled every moment of my every day. Now the air is loaded with his absence, as if he might walk through the door. Time can’t find its way through the disorganized maze of events. I don’t remember just when his exit began. He fought with his powerful will to stay in his body. He never felt his earth journey was complete and did everything he could to make those damaged, lungs keep working, and his heart was still pumping strong until just before the final breath.
|A Moment Without Oxygen !|
We had a routine appointment with his pulmonologist in Espanola. He didn’t want to go because our recent visit to lung specialists in Denver yielded no new information and left us worn out. He said, “what’s the use of going to the doctor, he won’t tell me anything new.” I thought of Dr. Narayanon, and how he and PQ bantered with each other and talked of their shared political views and jokes about the differences between the two kinds of Indians they represented. I talked him into keeping that appointment.
In the elevator to the doctor’s office, he began to struggle. When we got out, he almost fainted and had to find the nearest chair. A nurse ran for a wheelchair, and when he began the check in routine of heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen, the oxygen level was bouncing up and down off the charts. The nurse quickly fetched Dr. Narayanon, who took one look and sent him to the ER. His left lung had collapsed. Then began a month and a half of hospitals and procedures. My notes on the calendar are as mysterious as the progression of time, and as out of ordinary focus as a dream.
Thus began my life of waiting in hospitals. For a small Hispanic town, the Espanola Presbyterian Hospital is clean, modern, and spacious, with a caring staff that look in on the patient every few minutes. I spent five or six hours in PQ’s room every day and drove home to Taos in the evening. I didn’t mind the hour-and-a-half drive up the canyon. It was a beautiful spring landscape that soothed and restored my energy after the long hospital visits.
However, PQ’s body was not eliminating the morphine he’d been given when a tube was implanted in his lung cavity to drain air and fluid so that the lung had room to reinflate. It was decided to send him to Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque. Of course, that didn’t work. It took the Ambulance too long and the room was lost, so he went to Rio Rancho Presbyterian Rust instead. Our dear friend Carol with whom we stayed in Cottonwood, now relocated to Albuquerque became my center. I spent five hours at the hospital every day, until they decided to send him back to Taos. When he arrived back in Taos, he put on his jeans, cowboy boots and shirt. He followed me into the grocery store, and we went to the post office. One day, he received some out-of-town visitors and enjoyed playing his drum and singing lightly. But that was the last hurrah. The lung collapsed again.
By this time, I’m beginning to feel like a mouse in a maze, and Taos sounds like a comforting relief. After a few days in Taos Holy Cross, the pulmonologist there decided there was a procedure that might keep his lung from collapsing again, so he was sent by helicopter to Presbyterian in Albuquerque. (Are you getting confused yet?) I was. With each change there was a hope that this time there would be a better outcome. But the promised procedure was never used nor even mentioned again and it was soon decided that he was declining rapidly and should go back to Taos into hospice care.
PQ’s son Jarrick, and I agreed to this. I gathered my things and started back to Taos and as I was leaving Albuquerque, the ambulance driver called to make sure he had the Taos address right. Hospice bed, high flow oxygen concentrators and whatever else might be needed were to be installed in our house before arrival. PQ’s oldest son Corey had stayed at our home and taken care of the cat while we were gone. He worked rapidly to clear a space for entrance through the garage and in the living room for the bed and new equipment. I arrived just before the ambulance. However, the equipment and bed had not arrived, and PQ and ambulance drivers had to wait almost half-an-hour before it arrived. Nothing was working out as planned. The hospice nurse was trying to maintain some order, but PQ was approaching an oxygen crisis. Finally, the equipment came, and the bed and concentrators were set up. When PQ got off the gurney, he had a seizure. His pulse and heart rate plummeted, and the nurse was ready to declare him deceased, but then his vitals began to rise again.
I don’t know exactly how long ago that was. Time had stopped progressing sequentially after that first hospital experience. Soon after the hospice setup, perhaps a day, his daughter Jody arrived from Florida. He wanted her visit more than anything. She was a symbol of what he did wrong in his life and wanted to make right. Just before she walked through the front door, he insisted that he had to be wearing his jeans and boots. We couldn’t tell him that his jeans were put aside in the Pueblo house for a funeral service that seemed the inevitable outcome. He insisted, so I took his dress pants, boots and belt from the closet. He’d lost so much weight that the belt didn’t have enough holes and the pants landed around his ankles. He was now eating only a few bites of his favorite foods. Just enough to arouse the fond memory of watermelon, Strawberry Cream Slush, or scrambled eggs. We all tried to fulfill his yearnings.
Our house was now a hospital room, and a hospice nurse visited every day. PQ’s sister from South Dakota and her daughter spent some time with us. Relatives, from Denver, back east, and the Pueblo filled the house every day. His musician and artist friends came to pay their respects and say goodbye. One of his life gifts was in bringing people together, and he fulfilled that calling now as death approached even more than when his body was strong. People came together who hadn’t seen each other in years. And his life as an ambassador between cultures may have been a surprise to many of his family.
Now and then, PQ was sure he was near death and asked to go to the Pueblo for the final goodbye, but then he would change his mind and ask to make his transition to the spirit world from our house, which meant that his body would be taken in a hearse to the ancestral pueblo home and given the traditional burial after death. I was very relieved by this decision. There is no electrical outlet at the Pueblo, and he was now on 30 Ltrs of oxygen. He would have been sedated with morphine and after the oxygen tanks ran out, allowed to suffocate while his relatives waited for the final breath. I thought perhaps the yearning to please his father and follow his way was behind this drastic thought. I remember the jolt of being present when his father ran out of oxygen and expired in minutes.
All of us were under stress and sometimes there were misunderstandings and flareups. I sardonically imagined this would be a good topic for a family drama. One night his oldest son and I thought he was almost gone, called the younger son to come immediately and then decided to help his transition by playing appropriate music by his favorite musicians. “Journey to the Spirit World” by Buddy Red Bow was our first choice, followed by other artists such as Van Morrison, Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen. I no longer remember the whole lineup, but I do remember that it had a surprising effect. He became lively and started tapping out the rhythm of each song. The musical reboot lasted for two days.
I hoped he would make it to our tenth anniversary, an important date even though we had been together much longer. The marriage was an occasion for bringing our friends together in celebration of our partnership and that made it special.
On his last day in the body we knew, he had no energy for anything but breathing. He never entirely came to consciousness. In the late afternoon, his son Jarrick and his fiance left the house to get some food. It was now safe to leave him alone with one person. I sat beside him as he struggled with each breath. it was unbearable. Both he and I were hopelessly fighting against the inevitable. I put my hand on his forehead, stroked his wounded chest and told him, "dear love of my life, you cannot overcome this. Your lungs will never get better. I will love you forever no matter where you are. Your lungs are keeping you trapped in a struggle it is too late to win. I love you always and everywhere, body, soul and spirit forever. Then I went outside for several minutes and prayed under the beautiful summer sky, surrounded by the trees and flowers we injoyed over morning coffee in better days. I was outside perhaps five minutes, and when I returned he had stopped breathing.
I don’t know how to end this missive. I don’t feel the process is yet complete, perhaps it never will be and it is just a long wait until we can resume our life together with new bodies. I’ve restored our house to clean, orderly and comfortable, a mutual friend sent me a beautiful white orchid for my birthday and dear friends we shared took me out to dinner. He is always present, although now he lets me talk too. That’s the big difference. I say this not to be unkind, but our relationship made plenty of space for him as a performer and extroverted party boy. I didn’t resent this because, I had a lot of sway behind the scenes and also had my personal life trajectory.
My new freedom feels like an extended gap between breaths. There is nothing new to fill it, but the beauty of early summer allows me to keep the windows and doors open to life on the outside. I hope PQ is feeling free and at ease after his long struggle with that cruel thief of oxygen, pulmonary fibrosis.