Thursday, April 14, 2005 | My wife died, after a two-year battle with breast cancer, in July of 2000.
She died at home, under home hospice care. Hospice counselors had carefully briefed me on how she would die, and they gave me a booklet describing the stages of death.
She died in the afternoon, a Sunday, a little before 4:30. That morning, about 9 a.m., she became unresponsive, as the booklet had described. Her eyes were open, she moved and grimaced, and she flailed her arm and could grip my arm with her fingers. But there was no recognition of family or friends who were present.
In fact she had already shut us out, in the two or three days before. The hospice people said that was normal, that a person who is dying goes through a disconnect process and turns inward in preparation for death. I thought that was a beautiful and dignified thing for a human to do, to gather herself up, to wrap around herself in this situation beyond others’ understanding, and it was important to me to honor it.
By Sunday noon it didn’t matter. I worked hard to tend her properly, but she was unaware of my honor or attentions. Her eyes were bright and excited, her breathing was quick, and she was singing. The same note, over and over. For what it’s worth, I have long wondered if the last moments of a person’s life must offer some kind of complete and beautiful vision of life in all its mysteries, as compensation for her loss. It was fascinating, Meredith’s one-note song, but it didn’t surprise me. She did nothing during those hours to take away my own vision of where she might be.
Near the end, the booklet had said, her breathing would change, from quick but regular, to a steady pant that the booklet described as “fish out of water” breathing. From that point, it would be only a matter of minutes. As that transition occurred, she became still, her eyes wide and focused on the window beyond the foot of her bed. She fought for breath as if she were near the end of a race. It was heroic, but she wasn’t the hero. She was busy dying, spun like a leaf on a surging current, but her body was fighting desperately, heroically, to stay alive. There was nothing calm, or peaceful, here. This, also, was noble to me. In fact I was awed by it, to suppose we all are so naturally, unconsciously, valiant.
But then her body gave out. Just unable to continue. The panting stopped, just like that. A long silence, and then a long, deep breath. More silence, and then a second breath, and her eyes started to close. Two more breaths, and then in the clamor of shock and grief behind me, her life in her body ended. In a dreadful twinkling, her eyes, half-closed like a doll’s, became deader than a doll’s. In a doll’s eyes, it is possible to imagine life. Not in these. It was the hardest part.
And so I watched death arriving. I review these memories today because Terry Schiavo has died, and after all the clamor around her, I wanted some fact-based context in which to imagine the nobility of her dying. People have described her as heroic, a fighter, and her body must have been just so, just as in the hospice scenario. My God, Terry Schiavo’s body fought for years, not just the mere hours I witnessed, through that existence beyond responsiveness.
It additionally occurs to me that my information might be useful as a window into the Schiavo hospice, for people who are curious, after the circus, about how it really ended. I am sure we all put our own spin on our own dying, but my experience of Meredith’s death provides at least an approximation of Ms. Schiavo’s last day, gathered at last around herself in impenetrable dignity. I am also sure that Meredith, where she is, doesn’t mind sharing those hours of her own intimate heroism, and valor, at this hour.
In the first radio reports, I heard someone say something like, “Terri is at last in a place where she can have peace.” It was said by someone who had fought hard to keep her stopped short of that deliverance. It was a blinding contrast. How any person could have fought in these last days and weeks and years to keep Terri Schiavo alive in her deathbed is beyond my understanding. One of these, the politician, Tom DeLay, said, “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.” He thought he was talking about the men who let Ms. Schiavo go, but he really was talking about himself.
Two weeks after her death, Meredith knew I needed help, so she came to see me. She was brilliant and happy, green eyes and Brenda Starr hair, beyond pain or sorrow or any other of the human frailties that were wracking me. She didn’t speak, but she gave me a message: “Get on with it.” Easy for a spirit to say, as Terri Schiavo now knows. The Tom DeLays of the world will eventually be forgiven, but it will take awhile.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at