Jack was a middle-aged man and the picture of health when he had a sudden brain hemorrhage. He had been rushed to the hospital where I serve as chaplain. I was called to the ICU to provide spiritual care for the family as they learned that the damage was extensive and irreversible. The clinical phrase was “no discernible cognitive function.” They would soon be expected to give approval to remove the breathing tube.
When I arrived, a nurse who was checking a monitor nodded towards me in acknowledgement and said, “Here’s the chaplain.” Standing at the bedside and leaning over Jack was a woman I guessed to be his wife. She looked up, revealing the red puffiness around her eyes so common in situations like this. She was clutching a tissue in one of her hands and stroking Jack’s temple with the other. She introduced herself as Susan and confirmed my guess. Standing at the foot of the bed was a young man who Susan introduced as her son, David. He looked up for a brief moment but remained in stunned silence.
It was a typical ICU room except for a portable CD player that was sitting on a small shelf. Next to the player was a CD of The Beach Boys. Glancing at the CD and then at Jack’s soon-to-be widow, I said to her, “I’m guessing someone likes The Beach Boys.”
Susan replied, “They’re Jack’s favorite, his California connection. He grew up there and has always wanted to go back.” She paused for a moment and then continued, “He’s only here because of me. Kristi lives there now. We’re waiting for her….” Susan’s voice trailed off, leaving unspoken the reason for their daughter’s sudden trip from the west coast.
David suddenly said, “She’s going to take this the hardest.” Susan nodded in agreement, adding, “She’s Daddy’s girl.”
Kristi arrived later in the afternoon after friends and extended family members. When she saw her dad lying in the hospital bed with the breathing tube, she erupted into violent sobs, occasionally letting up just enough to catch her breath and choke out, “This can’t be happening,” and then sobbing again, each time joined by one or two others in the room who shared her disbelief. It soon became obvious that it would be a while before Kristi would be emotionally ready to let her dad go. It was decided to leave the breathing tube in overnight.
Kristi was much calmer the next morning. Surprisingly, it was she who matter-of-factly stated that they were waiting for the respiratory therapist, who, with the nurse, would be removing the breathing tube.
Kristi was softly singing along with Surfer Girl. She looked up at me and said, “Daddy loved The Beach Boys. They reminded him of his childhood in California,” she said. “He told so many stories about how much fun he had that I went there for college and never left. So, it’s really his fault that I live there. Good Vibrations was his favorite. Mine, too.”
We talked a bit about Jack’s faith, and about the family’s understanding of death and dying.
The time came for the breathing tube to be removed. With the nurse’s encouragement, the family had opted to be out of the room during the procedure. It is not uncommon in these situations for the body to continue breathing on its own for a while, but his pulse began slowing down immediately and his blood pressure dropped dramatically so the family was quickly summoned back.
Kristi turned up the CD player just as Don’t Worry, Baby started playing. I could imagine Jack singing that song to his little girl.
Kristi and Susan were in chairs on one side of the bed. David was standing a few feet away on the other side. As Jack’s body struggled to breathe, Kristi turned and looked up at me with a look of helpless anguish. “We talked about this,” I reminded her. “Do you remember what you said?” I nodded towards the bed. “You said, ‘That’s just his body, which he doesn’t need anymore.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s standing behind you now.”
Suddenly, Kristi became perfectly calm. Tears continued to stream down her face, but she had a look of total serenity. “You’re right. I can feel his hands on my shoulders. Everything is okay.”
The time between breaths was becoming longer, and I realized that Good Vibrations was playing. The last breath came just as the song faded. Kristi noticed it, too. She glanced at the CD player, looked at me, and smiled.