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The Day Dave Died
by Roz Leiser
Nothing stirred in the room. I was having a hard time concentrating on the book in my hands. My back was starting to hurt from sitting on the high-backed bedside chair. As I shifted my position, trying to prop my feet up onto the empty hospital bed in front of me, I heard a gasp for breath, a rasping. I looked over at Dave. All color was gone from his face, a bone-china translucent mask. The IV still was connected to his arm. Drops of fluid fell one by one into the plastic chamber. His long body covered the whole length of the bed. His breathing became regular again, slow but rhythmic.
* * *
THREE WEEKS AGO, after months of struggling to get his leukemia under enough control to be able to get a bone marrow transplant--months during which he continued to engage his friends, who were his support system as well as his health care providers--Dave had suddenly stopped talking, stopped eating, stopped responding to anyone.
In the face of Dave's withdrawal, we went into high gear. Dennis, Randi, Art, and I had come to L.A. to support Dave. The medical providers were almost as agitated as we were. We demanded explanations. They had none. They did tests. Nothing had changed. We were in our mid-20s. None of us knew anything about dying.
The Bone Marrow Unit at UCLA Medical Center was one of three places in the country that offered what was then an experimental procedure. It was a grim and bizarre place to hang out. Patients were given so much radiation that their immune systems were essentially killed. They lost their hair--all of it. They developed infections. They bled. They had fuzzy white thrush on their tongues. They lived in reverse isolation rooms. I looked at them through glass windows in doors that were always shut to keep out life-threatening germs. Sometimes I waved at them and they waved back. I entered Dave's room dressed in a cloth gown, paper booties, paper hat, rubber gloves, and a mask that made my breath sour when I inhaled.
During the two months we had been there, we got to know other patients' families and friends. I met the parents of a little girl on the unit. Their slumps in the waiting room told me when she had a fever; their frenetic energy as they made instant coffee signaled the antibiotics might be working. I started to think of her as little Daisy Duck when she grew a fuzzy thatch of hair. Some of the patients died. Daisy went home, only to be readmitted the next week. When someone was discharged and didn't return, we told each other this was good news.
Dave was never able to get the transplant. He appeared to accept this last door to life slamming in his face with grace. When we moved him out of isolation, we were relieved to be able to visit and touch him without all the barriers. We weren't prepared for his withdrawal. It hurt us, made us feel even more powerless than we already were. Eventually, we surrendered to this new reality and continued to keep a vigil in his room.
Two weeks passed, and suddenly one evening he sat up and, as though he was continuing a sentence he had started only a moment before, said, "I want a pizza. I want a hot fudge sundae, I want to go outside."
I've never sat down to a more wonderful meal than that pizza. Art, Dennis, Randi, and I were all there, as blessed as if we were eating manna straight from heaven. We each had our own hot fudge sundae.
The next morning, we wrapped Dave in six white blankets--what are known in the hospital as bath blankets, usually wrapped around patients while they are given bed baths--bundled him into a wheelchair, rode the elevator to the lobby, and wheeled him out into a perfect L.A. day. Mountains that had been shrouded in smog for the first weeks I was there stood out crisply under the clear sky. Dave's big black plastic-framed glasses almost fell off his ghostly face but slipped back into place as he tilted his head back in the warmth of the sun. He smiled in delight at a golden retriever that approached the wheelchair and was grateful to be petted.
That night he fell into a coma. There was bleeding in his brain; he wasn't likely to regain consciousness, but no one could say how long he would linger. We continued the vigil in shifts. Each time my shift came, I was relieved that he was still alive and afraid that he would die while I was there.
After Dave lived through my first shift, my dread lessened. I drifted into a fantasy that somehow he would go on and on like this, a peaceful being in bed. I felt surprisingly calm as the hours passed in that still room. Occasionally, a nurse came in to change an IV, take a look, or say something comforting, but most of the time there was only the humming of the temperature control system to keep me company.
I looked around at the walls, still covered with cards and posters. A poem by Ho Chi Minh on one began, "The wheel of the law turns without pause..." A quote from Che Guevara on another reminded me that "the task of a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love." On a brilliant blue background, a woman's silhouette told me, "The mountain moving day is coming...."
We were connected to Dave and each other by our political beliefs. I had cast off the religion of my childhood in favor of the politics of life on earth that so far had been our only guide for how to cope with Dave's illness. We had organized to get him into this transplant program, picketed at UC, wrote letters to the newspapers, sent petitions to the VA demanding they pay for the procedure. When Dave was first diagnosed, he wrote a poem in which imperialism was the metaphor for leukemia.
* * *
THE HOURS PASSED and the humming lulled me. I was free of the lump in my throat that often made it difficult to swallow, the racing heartbeat, the nausea at the smell of the hospital that had plagued me since I first came here. I don't know what made me look up from my book and walk over to Dave's bed. As I looked down, I simultaneously realized that he was not breathing and felt what I can only describe as a whooshing, a sharp rush of air, a strong sense that something had gone out of the room. I looked to see if the window was open, but saw only the same sealed glass and motionless curtains that had been there all day.
Roz Leiser is an integrative health and bereavement counselor with a practice in Noe Valley. She also directs Life Transitions Network, a nonprofit organization that offers workshops on loss and transition. The death of her friend Dave took place 30 years ago and started her on her journey to becoming a nurse, working for psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and pursuing a career helping others cope with end-of-life and bereavement issues. Much of Leiser's writing is of the academic variety, but she has published short fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in several publications, including The Sun and Across the Generations. In a constantly changing world, the Glen Park resident is grateful for the enduring existence of Herb's Fine Foods on 24th Street.