Professor P was proper and kind. Always dressed in a bow tie, even if he was wearing pajamas. He had worked in academia for decades and retired only when he started hospice. He had multiple chronic illnesses that eventually took their toll. He had a conversation with his primary care physician about hospice and he decided it was time. Some of his specialists disagreed but he was very clear. It was his decision and it was his time. So it went.
The professor was married with two lovely children. They thought the world of him. The children had married and both had two children. They all lived within a two-block radius of each other. Tight knit family. They had seen Professor P battle his various ailments for years. They mostly, kind-of agreed with his decision to start hospice care. They definitely agreed with his decision to retire. Finally.
As a hospice nurse my weekly visits with the professor were longer than average. The care of Professor P was quite straight-forward. His goal was to be lucid for as long as possible but also to manage pain appropriately. For him an appropriate level of pain was less than 5 out of 10. A 4 was alright, a 5 made it too hard to concentrate and have conversations. We could work with that. He had very few questions for me.
His family, his lovely devoted family, had many questions. Every visit. And they were always the same questions. I would meet with the professor and they would watch quietly. He was comfortable having them in the room when I visited. Then they would escort me into the living room, away from the professor, and the questions would begin.
Is he dying? Is he dying right now? How do you know? If he is not dying then what do we need to look for? What will happen first? What if that does not happen first? What if it starts and you’re not here? What if it happens really fast? What if the process is really slow? How do we know when he’s dying?
Every visit we would go through the same series of questions. We would sit and talk through each question. And the questions, the first time, were actual questions, because so much of death and dying is not discussed anymore and when it happens it feels foreign and unknown. But as we got into this rhythm of visits, the questions seemed to became a form of security for them. This family was very learned. Professor P was not the only professor in the family. And knowledge was security.
But that’s the thing with death and dying. This type of knowledge is a mixture of facts with a lot of maybe-this-could-happen-this-way or maybe another way. Every person, every death, every passing, they are all different, just like the person who is dying. And this is what I told them each time as I answered their questions.
This is why we went through the questions every time. Knowledge would never be enough because there is a time when I believe blind trust or faith is needed. Belief. Belief that this process is what it should be.
I could try to know everything I could possibly know about death but that will not, never-ever allow me to ever control or predict or prepare for the actual process of dying. (And despite trying, I would never be able to know everything. Ever.) And this may have been the hardest part for this loving and learned family – this was something that could not be learned without living it.