Sitting with a Dying Physician

Paul Rousseau

The smell of sickness saturates the room.

A vomit basin, half full, lies on Mary’s lap. Her thin lips quiver. “I can’t eat or drink anything.” She shakes an unused cup of melting ice in her right hand; a tangle of tubes and wires jostle. She grabs an ice cube and slides it into her mouth. She turns her head to the side and retches. “I need a feeding tube.” She shoves her breakfast to the side. A sob rises in her throat. “It’s getting hard not to think about death.”

She pulls herself up with the bedrails. I glance at the mattress; there is barely an imprint in the sheets. She is nothing but sallow skin and bones. There is a grumbling deep in her belly. She leans forward and spews a bilious, blood-tinged fluid. She swishes her mouth with water and spits into the vomit basin.

We sit in shared silence, the shrill cadence of the heart monitor the only sound. She fidgets with the bedsheets. “I know I’m seventy-nine, but I’m not ready to die. Do you understand? I’m not ready to die.” I grimace and nod. No one wants to die, no one; we cling until we can cling no more. Still, disease carves its own reality. Her cancer has continued to progress despite radiation, surgery, and several cycles of chemotherapy. “The oncologist wants me to give up.” Her brow creases, her hands clench. Her eyes swivel side to side, feral and agitated. She flings her arms into the air. “I’m not ready to die, dammit, I’m not ready. Doesn’t anyone listen to me? Are you listening?” Her existential suffering is profound. I stand and cradle her shoulders. She adjusts her oxygen tube and collapses back in bed, clumps of flesh settling like spilt mercury.

There is a stack of medical journals on the bedside table. She studies her disease. She knows the data, she knows her options, she knows her prognosis. She glances at the journals. “There are miracles.” And she is right, there are miracles, but beneath the grit of struggle, she knows her fate.

I remember, before I was sick, I loved to lie in bed. Pull the covers over me and hide from the world. Make love. Read a book. Now I abhor the bed. It has become a prison, a coffin, a grave.” She balances on her elbows, pauses, and lowers her head. “I wonder how many before me died in this bed?” Her face crumples like linen; fat tears leak in rivulets. “If I’m honest, I’m closer to death than life.” Her voice is despaired and resigned.

She turns toward the window, pensive. The sky is grey, rain falling with weight. “I love this weather.” She pivots. “But the droplets remind me of my cancer and the renegade cells that escaped the slurry of poisons.” A nurse slips in and doses her with morphine. Within minutes, she is in an opioid twilight. She heaves a heavy breath, and closes her eyes. “Forget the miracle,” she murmurs. Her face relaxes and puckers inward.

The phone rings later in the evening. The rain has cleared, the moon a sliver on the horizon. The nurse tells me Mary has died.