Death and Taxes

Here’s a finger in the eye of the Universe:

It’s possible to find humor anywhere–even in an ICU.

Unless you’re the patient.

For those of us who are merely visitors, transported in a spoon to the bedside of our loved one, the experience remains harrowing.

When I was a kid we used to have a saying–“See ya in Vegas”–a phrase which simultaneously meant “see you later” and “all is cool.”

While deeply uncool–even if the best care is at hand there–being in an ICU, for the visitor, is like being inside a casino. There’s a pulse to the place, in terms of the whirring machines and their flashing lights. There’s no sense of time. And the outcome is mighty uncertain.

Then one emerges, after an extended visit, to find the world outside has, in moving indifferently on, totally changed. It will have become night, say, or have suddenly rained.

Mercifully, I’ve never experienced it as a patient.

I’d trade places with Alex, if I could, in a heartbeat.

He’s been in Vegas for over a week now.

I’d be much happier if he could sit in the purgatorial half-light visiting me while I, intubated and insensible, lay in a coma on the sickbed. I’d be in much better shape if he experienced all the unsettling lights and alarms. Even though I’ve 25 years on him, I think–systemically, at least, because I’m not so compromised as he is–I would have a better chance against the MRSA, sepsis and pneumonia he’s fighting.

It’s my understanding that 40% of otherwise healthy people in his condition do not make it.

I’m in my mid-fifties and we have five kids. Dying, to me, means not having to cook dinner anymore. But he’s only 28.

So I sit there, mostly with his girlfriend–I doing a crossword or reading while she’s on her smart phone–the pair of us jumping out of our skins every time an alarm goes off in the room.

I’m keeping the above paragraph in the present tense because our son was still alive when I wrote it.

We were not ready for his death yesterday.

I’m never doing another crossword puzzle for the remainder of my days.

We were so unready that I burst into startled laughter when, at Alex’s bedside, our oldest son became flustered with his smart phone.

“Damn it,” he cursed, “I’m trying to file my taxes here.”

In fact, we were trying to figure out some kind of joke to play on Alex when he woke up from sedation. I was thinking of telling him his girlfriend is pregnant, or of wearing a grey wig and telling him he’d been under for 10 years. But one of his nurses took the prize. “Congratulate him,” she said, “and tell him the sex change operation was a complete success.”

He would have loved that.

Joseph Oldenbourg

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  1. First of all, most sincere condolences, late though they may be. My late father had a relatively long illness lasting several years. We knew that the end would come but still, there’s just no way that you can be prepared it would seem. I’m certain that this goes double when you lose your offspring. That just isn’t supposed to happen.

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