Dying Alone

River Running

Photo by Earnest B

Photo by Earnest B

Black water flows,
Circling in doomed
tide pools;
Awaiting the inevitable,
An unknown stream of unconsciousness.
River running fast but leading nowhere,

I wait.

Black water flows carrying the tail ends
Of life.
Air above swirls through forced motion

I wait.

Decisions being made
Without action to follow.
Life and death swirl in dark water

And still I wait.

Life beats fast before
Closing its chambers.
Red rivers flow
Until merging with black water.
Time stands still momentarily;

I wait
I watch
I listen

Then it’s gone in one moment;
The tide pools quell
Waiting mysteriously with hidden messages.
Black water flows on
I’m finished waiting
It’s time to go home.

I wrote this poem over ten years ago while working the night shift in NYC.  My patient was dying from complications of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). I knew nothing about this woman except that she was a prostitute at some point in her life, contracted HIV, was on a ventilator, near death, and all alone.

When I walk into a patient’s room, I don’t always have the luxury of caring for a person who can walk or talk.  I may need to wear a mask to ward off Tuberculosis (TB), or gloves to protect myself from infected blood containing deadly organisms.

When I walk into a patient’s room I check my hang-ups at the door.  I’m there for one reason, and for one reason only…to take care of the person in the bed in front of me to the best of my ability.

I don’t care how you got there, what you did in your life, if you’re a prisoner or a prostitute, I do care; however, how I’m going to make a difference in the twelve hours I’m assigned to your care.

I think the saddest thing I’ve encountered over my twenty-five years of nursing is when I’m caring for a dying patient who’s dying alone.  Not all of us are fortunate enough to have an entourage holding vigil around the deathbed.  Some of us go quietly, slipping out before anyone notices we’re even gone.

It’s heartbreaking to watch a fellow human being die alone.  I try to be present when I can sitting quietly at the bedside to bid them farewell on to their next journey.

They say we come into this world alone, so leaving should be no different, but I beg to differ.  I know this is my personal belief and may not be shared by others, but holding the hand of a lonely soul as they take their final breath is the least I can do as their nurse, but more importantly is the least I can do as their fellow human being.

holding hands

Pet Funeral

This past weekend my family held its first ever pet funeral.  A touching homage to Crystal, my daughters newly acquired Chinese fighting fish.  (If ever there was a reason not to give a kid a fish as a party favor, this would be it…fish die…more than they live.)  Crystal came to us, one of three fish (one for each of my children), as a birthday party ‘goody bag’.  Equipped with her own little fishbowl and a colorful, gravely carpet, she seemed like the perfect accessory for my seven-year old little girl.  As a bonus, on the way out of the pet store party place, one of the employees informed my daughter she had inadvertently received a beta fish, (worth more money), and was told the fish would live for at least ten years.  My daughter is the kind of kid who takes information, squirrels it away for a rainy day, and then uses it to her advantage when the time arises. (I’m thinking law school might be in her future.)

So it came as quite a surprise when Crystal turned up dead in her bowl thirteen days later; cause of death: unknown.  Thankfully for me, Crystal was a D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate), so my fish lip pucker wasn’t required.  After having a forensic review with the children, we were completely unable to come up with any evidence as to what or who may have killed our new family member.  The water was clean, there was food in the bowl, everyone in the family had an alibi that night (we were all sleeping), and so it remains a mystery.  My daughter, however, recalled quite clearly her fishes ten-year life expectancy, and is now gunning for the kid at the pet store.

I had to remind her that in times of grief it’s not unusual to want to bestow blame or anger on someone else.  I encouraged her to express her feelings and get it all out.  What I didn’t expect was my four-year olds reaction when he learned of Crystal’s untimely end.  The tears came freely for him, and I returned his grief with hugs and kisses.  So much for a toilet flush funeral, it was obvious we were going to have to go all out for our gal Crystal; it was time to open: The Pet Cemetery.

My kids have been to a pet cemetery before, (No, not the Stephen King kind), a local one at an old manor house along the Hudson River.  It is a peaceful place in the woods where several of the owners of the house had buried their beloved pets, and carved touching epitaphs honoring their memories.

My children rallied together, a band of broken hearts, with their shovels, rakes and picks, and got to work locating a beautiful spot adjacent to the woods, under a big oak tree, bordering the edge of our property.  They dug a shallow grave, collected branches of softly changing leaves, and picked flowers growing wildly in the yard.  A tombstone was chosen; it was grand and coated in delicate green moss; old worldly, and elegant, propped against the tree, it marked the final resting place of our fish Crystal.

When all the preparations were finalized, the children summoned my husband and me to the site of interment, where each of us were directed to say something positive about our too short-lived fish family member.  We closed with a Hail Mary, gently dropped the fresh dug earth back onto the fish, and encased her tomb with a crimson coat of leaves and flowers.

Tears were wiped, and a reception followed in the kitchen; all in all a beautiful ceremony.

And so it begins, our children’s introduction to death, but also their instinctual need to bury their dead with dignity and respect, for life IS precious, even if you are just a fish.


Today I woke up and found Ember, my oldest son’s fish, dead at the bottom of his bowl.

I think we might have a serial killer in the house!