Over the past couple of weeks, as we approached the end of Vernon’s life, I kept thinking about the Ocean. Lets think of it the un-earthy world that it is—something vast and strange and powerful, the home to fantastic creatures without lungs. The final frontier. A place that humans enjoy playing on the edges and on the surface of. But though we are 60% water ourselves, and being near the sea calms us (as deep calls to deep and liquid calls to liquid) we can only dip our toes and bodies in the waves or sail around on boats. We are attracted to it, we marvel at it, but don’t belong in it. We don’t have gills. Even the best swimmers still need oxygen to survive.
From the beginning of Vernon’s last visit to Hoag a few weeks ago, it felt like we were getting glimpses of heaven, getting closer to the edge of this other world beyond. I imagined the ocean. It felt at first like coming into a coastal area from inland: suddenly there is a marine mist in the air, your skin feels a bit different, and if the wind is right, you can smell the saltwater. As you get closer, you noticed people around you look a little different: they are tan and wear flip flops. You see surfboards on roof racks. You notice local cottages are decorated with gifts of the sea: driftwood, old fishing nets, shells, starfish. As you get to the beach itself, the water is startling cold and frightening…your nerves react to the saltwater sting, you can’t jump in, you can only flirt with the foam as it dances back and forth on the sand. The waves are too loud sometimes, and the color changes to something darker, not the idyllic jeweled blue and green it seemed from a distance. Close up, it looks a lot more endless than it did before.
In Vernon’s hospice season, it began to feel as if we were pushing him out on a boat that just wouldn’t leave the shore, but kept coming back with every wave. We stuck with him, surrounding him with support, getting wet ourselves, sputtering at times, exhausting our strength.
I remembered the painting Vernon did a few months back.
But finally he got it, and it wasn’t a boat that took him out. After a week of changing breath patterns, he learned how to un-breathe at last, and he was ready for this vast and magical new environment as someone who could survive there. He stopped breathing, the color drained from his face in seconds. It was not dramatic but peaceful. And I was there to see it happen in a moment. All that time and then a moment. One last gentle puff of air.
Vernon passed away at 8.50pm on Wednesday, August 24.
Finally, he is…sans oxygen.