by Mary Catherine Cochran
Nearly a year ago- according to my Facebook timeline, I attended a meeting where a good friend and neighbor was recognized by Howard County Council Resolution for his work in the community, his dedication to family and his selection as the Honorary Grand Marshall of the Baltimore City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.Resolutions are good for just that sort of thing- recognizing the quiet heroes among us who work hard, give freely and encourage us all to be better citizens. At well over 6’ he normally stands tall, but on that particular evening he towered over the rest of us. A month later- on a perfect day for a parade we watched as our quiet man, impeccable in top hat, tails and twinkling Irish eyes, led the parade. It was a great honor for him, but it was standard operating procedure for the rest of us – we were used to following.
Four months ago he took the lead, again, when his physician told him he had Mesotheliomia, a rotten scourge of a disease that had already killed his brother and had decimated the ranks of his fellow pipe fitters who had been exposed to asbestos insulation. “Very good”, the quiet man replied. The physician, confused by the response, explained that this was a fatal diagnosis and the man, again, answered; “Very good”. The physician did not know that this was the quiet man’s standard answer to everything life threw at him- the sweet and the bitter, the birth of babies, the death of a cherished spouse. “Very good” was an affirmation of faith that there was some reason; some order in the things that lay beyond his control and it was an expression of acceptance, an acceptance of life- all of life, not just the parts we wish to pick and choose.
Three months ago, shortly after receiving his second chemotherapy treatment, a week after attending his first grandson’s wedding and a day after visiting his friends at the Maryland Irish Festival, the quiet man suffered a heart attack that would take his life before the end of the day. On his last morning he flew over his beloved Baltimore City en route from the Howard County General Hospital Emergency Department to the Johns Hopkins CCU. The physicians at Hopkins told the family to say their goodbyes one last time. The family gathered around his bed offering one-sided farewells and whispered prayers of gratitude. The quiet man, perhaps sensing the sorrow which lay thick throughout the room, unexpectedly awakened and, in the shadow of impending death, spent his final hours speaking with each family member, offering reassurance, lending strength from his own breaking heart, telling a joke or two, and teaching those who were gathered, one last lesson on acceptance and grace.
Perhaps dying gracefully should be more than an aspiration, perhaps it should be a right. The Johns Hopkins Hospital gave the quiet man and his family the gift of a graceful death. We’ve learned to expect an easier death as a part of the hospice experience, but in the culture of hospital medicine, which equates life as victory and end of life as defeat, it was less expected. I will forever be grateful to the entire Hopkins staff of nurses and physicians, especially Dr. Chiadi Ndumele , who fostered a good death for a man who had lived such a “Very good” life.