I drove an ambulance for two years. No one ever died in my truck. Not one. Plenty of people were dead when we found them, and a few died before we could load them, and I'm sure many died shortly after we dropped them off.
The one who came closest was D. We picked him up at a nursing home, to take him home to die. When we got there he was already doing that fish-breathing dying people do, those desperate irregular gasps like each breath is a load they can barely lift. His son was by his side, holding his hand.
My partner mouthed to me, "Let's move quick. He's CTD." Circling The Drain. Ha ha! Like in a potty! We are monsters because if we were human we couldn't help people. Have you ever had to pick up human fingers and put them in a bag? It's a lot easier to do if you're a dumb callous jerk.
So we were monsters, and loaded the truck fast, and drove to his home. The whole way there D gasped, on and off, sometimes stopping for a long moment and seeming still but then finding the strength for one more breath. He reacted to nothing in the world, not sound nor sight, but when his son held his hand, D held it back. Weakly. And he held on. For fifteen miles, with my own breath held at every traffic light, he held on. We got to his home. His whole family was there. They were all around him, in his own home where he'd raised his children and played with his grandchildren, when he finally stopped gasping.
We put him in his own bed, and washed his face, and pulled the sheets up nicely. We made him look okay, look comfortable. He'd made it home.
M was the very opposite. We came to take her from her home so she could die in a hospice. It was better for her there--she'd get more care, be kept cleaner and medicated more consistently, and the burden would be off the family. It made sense. But it wasn't her home.
M wasn't old, but she had cancer. When we came into the room and saw her, she was, like D, seemingly unaware of anything. She did not look at us, did not move when we said her name. But when we got ready to take her out of her bed, before we had even touched her, she stopped breathing.
I touched her neck. I felt her heart beat a few times, weak and irregular, and then just a thready little thrill, and then nothing. For long enough to be sure, nothing at all. The family looked at me expectantly. "She's gone," I said. It felt like a stupid cliche, but I couldn't think of a better way to say it.
Her husband lost it. He forgot we were there, forgot his own family even. He just crumpled and sobbed. It wasn't dignified in any way; he wailed. He kissed her and kneeled by the bed and bawled until snot ran down his face. We let him be. I went into the living room and made calls to our dispatch, the hospice agency, and the funeral home. We realized we'd left our jump kit in the bedroom, and I snuck back in as unobtrusively as possible behind the husband to grab it. I needn't have bothered. I could have set off a grenade behind him and he wouldn't have known.
She had to die sooner rather than later to do it, but M, like D, didn't die alone and she didn't die in a strange sterile place. Although both of them seemed to know nothing of the world, I think they knew when they were home.
R didn't die in front of me. We came on the same mission as M, to take her from her home to a hospice. Her home was nice--not fancy, not big, not in a nice area--but nice. It was clean and calm with art on the walls and her bed was was big and old and looked comfy. The place we were taking her was also clean and calm, but the art was all generic soothing landscapes and the beds had plastic mattresses. This was her last moments in any place that was home.
Her husband, quite elderly and moving slowly, followed us out. He wasn't coming in the ambulance. Presumably he later came and visited her in the hospice, but this was the last time he would be home with her. In the parking lot, before we loaded her into the ambulance, we paused so he could say goodbye to her. He didn't say anything. He bent down, slow and unsteady, and kissed her like no one was watching.
We were cleaning a corpse, once, at the ER. Like ya do. The girl helping me clean him was kind of a sensitive type, definitely not a subscriber to the "I'm frivolous and callous because I care" philosophy, but she was holding it together okay. He was on the older side of middle-aged, not really old enough to die, but he'd been obese and a lifelong smoker and heavy drinker and that helps us make it okay in our minds. If someone didn't take perfect care of themselves, you know, that means they sorta deserved it and we shouldn't feel so bad. It's not that we're evil, it's just that we'll believe anything to not feel so bad.
But we took off his shirt and suddenly the girl started sniffling and holding back tears. I looked and I knew why. He had a tattoo that read, "If love could have kept you alive, you never would have died." Underneath was a picture of his daughter.
There are two paintings hanging on my wall. They're from a woman I cared for, way back when I worked at an assisted living facility. She had to leave the facility when she broke her hip and her health got worse, and she gave away most of her paintings--there were dozens--to the aides. One of the paintings is from long ago, back when she was healthy. It's an exotic market scene, rendered in blue and gold with wild, abstract brushstrokes, with birds in cages and vaguer figures suggesting hanging fruit and gourds.
The other painting was from after she suffered the brain injury that put her in assisted living. It's clumsy and simple, painted with the brush held in a twisted, contracted fist. But what's more noticeable is that it's an entirely literal, dead-center and unembellished image of some nice flowers in a pot. All of her paintings after the injury were like that.
But she never stopped painting.