One day, Uncle Tom was leaving the local Italian-American Club, his favorite little hangout to play cards and share war stories. As he walked along the sidewalk to his Cadillac, his foot slipped off the curb and he fell. His head cracked against the firm chrome bumper. His neck snapped. Luckily, paramedics arrived quickly and kept him stable as they rushed him to the hospital. Upon arriving, he was in a coma, being kept alive by breathing tubes and machines. My aunt was at the hospital around the clock, even though he was in the ICU and could only have visitors for brief periods. My parents, sister, and I all left work early to visit them daily and offer a little emotional support. After several weeks in a coma, with no positive prognosis, a decision had to be made: would we “pull the plug” or keep him on life support indefinitely? We talked about it as a family, each of us counseling my Aunt Audrey through this difficult decision. Ultimately, we wanted her to know that after 50 years of marriage, the decision was completely hers, and that we would support her no matter what. My uncle was completely brain dead, a shell of a human being. This once proud man now breathed only with assistance from a machine. He had lived a long, rewarding life. The choice was obvious. The doctors would remove my Uncle Tom from life support.
The hospital staff was very gentle, asking Audrey if she wanted to be in the room with him when he “went”. Through tears, she nodded “yes”. My dad looked to each of us with concern in his eyes, hoping someone would convince her not to. No one did. He stood up, “Audrey, are you sure you want to do this?” She nodded again and started walking with the nurse. There was no keeping her away from her last chance to see her husband. The nurse asked, “Would anyone else like to be there with her?” My dad and I looked at each other and, deciding Audrey needed all the support she could get, we joined her. The doors to the ICU were heavy and automatically locked to keep anyone from disturbing the patients. Once those doors clicked behind us, with my sister and mother staying in the waiting area while we walked down the corridor to Tom's room, I immediately regretted my decision to join. On one hand, I was a 21-year-old man who wanted to be strong for his family but on the other, I was such a fucking pussy.
Aunt Audrey entered my Uncle Tom’s room with my dad and I staying close by her side. The nurse left the room, offering her a few minutes to say goodbye before she and the doctor would come back. My dad put a chair right next to the bed, and my aunt sat down. She cried and held his hand. She kissed his forehead and whispered her final goodbye into his ear. We tried to stay strong, to stay silent. Her sorrow filled the room and we were merely there to be walking canes- to offer support in a time of need. The doctor entered the room with two nurses. They walked us through the process, very professionally but also very clinically. He would feel nothing, we were assured. As his life support systems were removed, his body jostled and shook. His head twitched, his mouth foamed. My aunt cried loudly, bursting with emotion, “He’s still alive! Tom! Tom?! Oh God, he’s dead! What have I done?! I killed him! I killed my husband!” My dad grabbed her and held her close, but she kept crying. I pressed my hand to her back and fought back my own tears as I listened to her weep. We reassured her that he was already dead, we just gave him peace. Muscle spasms are common in those situations. No one came away from that experience with a “happily ever after” moment. We all lost a piece of ourselves that day and even though more than a decade has passed since Tom’s death, we’ve not spoken of that experience to each other at all.