It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch someone die.
My old neighbour was 87 in October. I live in the appartment directly above where he resided for over 11 years. He lost his wife to cancer in the summer of 2007 as I moved at Christmas – exactly 4yrs ago … I was crazy with confusion and self-hate, he, crazy with grief. What transpired was an odd symbiosis of mutual empathy and we very quickly became each other’s new best friend.
As time went on, he became less and less mobile and, where in the first couple of years he had been extremely active and involved in the community here, in many different ways, he gradually stopped going out as often and would prefer the comfort of his sofa to an evening out playing chess or dining with friends.
About a year and a half ago, he suddenly took a turn for the worst and spent the following three weeks in hospital. Psychologically, he never recovered and, although he regained his health to a certain extent, it was clear that his will to live was waning fast. It was like he had suddenly given up.
He had told me often enough that he hated the fact that he had outlived his wife and, rightly or wrongly, I often playfully chastised him for not counting his blessings – he has a fantastic and loyal family, many of whom he sees regularly and who go out of their way to be there for him; He was always popular and had a great many friends who visited and contacted him daily; he was active and mobile, could drive and most definitely still had his wits about him. But still he claimed he was not long for this world and would rather go now, before he became a ‘burden’. That much, at least, I guess I could understand.
As time went on, he pretty much stopped going out altogether and with that came what we all silently acknowledged would become an irrevocable decline in both his health and of his psychological state. He began suffering desperate breathing difficulties, combined with horrific bouts of coughing due to an increase in water build-up on his lungs. The rest took its gradual but steady course and there were times when he was admitted to hospital again and then again, that we thought he would not survive the night. But he always did.
From the beginning of last year I was visiting more and more often until his family requested that I become his official carer, helping to look after his hygiene needs as well as in the kitchen and with odd jobs that he needed doing around the house. This I did with pleasure as I’d been doing almost all of that anyway, but it was at that point when he really started to open up to me about his greatest wish – to die and to die soon. He didn’t want to fight any more. He wasn’t going to fight any more.
From being an avid political and cultural debatteur, my friend suddenly became insular and totally self-obsessed, speaking of nothing other than how passionately he hated his life. I always listened, but it saddened me beyond all belief as I watched him disintegrate before my very eyes.
In the meantime, his granddaughter had a son – Helmut’s first great-grandson and, although I’m sure it meant the world to him deep down, he expressed little emotion at the birth where, at the beginning of her pregnancy he had announced it to everyone and anyone with an enormous amount of pride. Nothing, and I mean nothing, seemed to be important any more. His standard phrase was the German equivalent of ‘whatever; I really don’t care’.
2011 was for him, from then on, simply an endless stream of hospital visits .. three weeks here, 2 weeks there, one month of rehab, home for a few days then back to hospital. From the summer on, he spent more time in hospital than out of it, but not in a vegetative state – some days perfectly coherent, others less so but due only to the weight of drugs prescribed to ‘calm him’. He was driven slowly mad from the boredom instilled on him by his now very evident physical disabilities. His internal organs were starting to fail and he has since been in constant pain in his back. The psychological had given up on the physical and the physical has since taken a downturn to the extent that he has become fully dependent on others, for everything. In the Autumn, after a serious of falls and a major problem with his digestive system, he finally accepted that he could not continue to live at his appartment alone, however much help he had, and he consented to moving into a home in town. Despite the house being a truly wonderful place and a marvelous example of how retirement homes should be, he despises being there and yearns even more for the end to put him out of his misery. When he speaks to me of death now, I get it.
I can’t really put into words my time with him over the last two months and, particularly over the Christmas period. The last few weeks have consisted of daily visits just to hold his hand –sometimes for hours on end – often while he dozes. He doesn’t want to live any more. He is wasting away before our eyes, nothing but skin and bone, his internal organs failing with a slowness I can only refer to as excruciating.
He speaks to me occasionally but falls asleep mid-sentence, awakening in distress at his own confusion, no longer knowing where he left off the conversation. He tells me again and again that he wants to die and these days he looks at me directly in the eye when he says it, his eyes pleading. My empathy is meaningless; he knows I cannot help him, I know he knows, but he says it anyway: “The best thing would be for someone just to shoot me” .. he cares nothing of the potential implications of his speech, nor for the despair of his loved ones, floundering in their own futility. He has become a shell of a man who just wants to leave this world. If he were a family pet, the law would have obliged him several months ago. But he is not. He is a person. With rights. But with no right to die.
I will continue to go, just to be with him but my sense of helplessness is off the scale. He needs me to be there, but my presence is irrelevant.. He is the epitome of loneliness but I can no longer reach him. I cannot help my friend, other than to hold his hand and watch while he passes time. I know he feels that, but it is far from being enough.
It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch someone die.
But it’s even more heartbreaking to watch them die so slowly.