Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, MIssissippi is a thoroughly modern hospital that was renovated recently and doesn’t have any of the retro-fitted rooms or relic equipment that older facilities sometimes have. Everything is tastefully decorated in neutral earth tones, every room is fully equipped with networked diagnostic computers, and every staff member is polite and professional. It is, in short, a perfectly pleasant place to watch your dad die.
I didn’t spend time appreciating the atmosphere when I first arrived. Our flight got in late, which meant that we got to the hospital late, which meant the ICU’s brief visiting window had already started. We were ushered deep into forty-some-odd pod ICU area, where my mom and dad awaited us.
I sort of knew what to expect when I saw my dad, but the reality managed to hit me hard all the same. He was lying in a hospital bed, a breathing mask over his nose and mouth, a half dozen tubes snaking into various parts of his anatomy. He was wasted away, thin and weak, unable to speak coherently and only marginally able to make his wants known. But he was awake, and he was aware, and he smiled when he saw us, and I will always be grateful that I made it there before they put the breathing tube in.
I wanted to talk to him, but standing there at his bedside all my words failed me. It was so hard to know where to start. “Hi Dad, I’m here, I love you” were obvious, but what kind of conversation do you offer to a man near death?
Everyone else seemed to talk to him like he was a scared child. He would get agitated, and they would lean in. “It’s okay, you’re fine,” they’d say, patting his shoulder or stroking his hair. I’ve comforted Kat the same way when she’s fallen down and hurt herself. I couldn’t bring myself to talk that way to my dad.
We talked among ourselves, but I never knew what to say to him. Nothing I said would have mattered. Nothing I said would have changed the course of the next few days. Nothing I said would have changed what happened two hours later, when they sedated my dad and inserted a breathing tube down his throat and took away the last of his ability to communicate with the rest of the world.