BY C. T. DOWNS
C. T. Downs is based in Toronto. Copyright is held by the author.
I HAD WORKED in the ICU for just a few years, and while I had seen death before, this would be the first time that I was the cause. The job of turning off someone’s life support typically went to the more experienced nurses, those more steeled to the reality of the grief they were about to impose. Today, however, there were other emergencies keeping everyone else occupied, so the unpalatable task fell to me. I knew I wasn’t ready, not in the slightest. I had no fear of the act itself, that part was pretty much clinical. The patient had shown no brain activity for quite some time, his trauma significant, with little to no chance for recovery. My trepidation stemmed from facing his friends and family, being the invisible interloper, knowing that it would be through my action that this life (meagre though it was) would be ended. With some reluctance, I went into the room to do the final check for consciousness, preparing to let his loved ones in for their last moments.
He was younger than I thought, looking calm and serene, even handsome. You could tell he was loved very much, the room was full of cards. No flowers of course, those were strictly forbidden in the ICU, but someone had got one of those mylar helium balloons, with the phrase “Good Luck!!” emblazoned on it, surrounded by four leaf clovers. It was obviously an inside joke, and the irony was not lost on me. A brief splash of colour in the cold, sterile environment. The rhythm of the machines had an odd meditative effect, although the cadence spoke of the inexorability of death, the steady march of inevitability. It set me on edge. I knew that eventually, soon, immanently, I would have to open the door, and allow those that had gathered to enter. And in doing so, I would take one step closer to committing, according to some interpretations, murder.
There were surprisingly few who came inside; perhaps the cards others sent were a surrogate for their attendance. In that slow, measured, funereal way, they shuffled around the bed, eyes brimming, looking at him, each other, then me. All I could offer in return was stone faced compassion, neither sorrow nor support. As they took turns, speaking softly to him and each other, the occasional sob escaping, I stood and watched, forced to take in the sheer immensity of the moment. It would have been inappropriate to engage, yet far worse to turn away, shunning the proceedings and denigrating their grief. So I stood, and watched. It was inescapable, my apprehension palpable, bordering on a phobia — would I be able to act, scared as I was, even though I knew that I must? Selfishly I wanted them to draw the process out, but then it was time. Their mourning had abated, albeit slightly, but there was an air of mute acceptance. Everyone, in their own way, had said their goodbye, and made peace. Struggling, I reached over to the ventilator, and flicked the switch.