A Quiet Star

December 17, 2014

Uncle Vic died in the wee hours this morning. I felt grateful to have been a part of his final day

I was present for my dad’s death, over fourteen years ago, but the circumstances were very different. He’d had a heart attack, nearly flatlined a couple of times before paramedics got him stabilized, then lay in a drug-induced coma in the hospital for two weeks. When life support was suspended, he passed away. He never knew what hit him.

Uncle Vic was lucid and engaged until the last day of his life, able to talk and be a part of decisions concerning his health and quality of life. It wasn’t really until yesterday that they used morphine to take the edge off. Best I can figure, morphine keeps pain at bay and neutralizes any agitation, fear, anxiety, anger. That said, I’m not sure he would have experienced much fear or anxiety. One never knows what is in another’s heart, but he seemed content and accepting. Even as he was completely aware of what was happening to him. That takes a strong dose of courage, I think. What inspires me is that, as a man of science and not particularly religious (whatever that means), he appeared settled, even before the morphine. In the final hours, were it not for breathing issues, I think he’d have been very comfortable. It was a peaceful scene.

I wrote yesterday about what turned out to be an unexpectedly long and wonderful day of love and support. Everybody knew Uncle Vic was in the final moments of his life. A small gathering of family members–those geographically close–were on hand (Aunt Joy, Heidi and her family, Duwayne and myself, and a visit from Aunt Jane and Jon). Throughout the day, neighbors and friends dropped in, too. Rain pounded outside most of the day, while inside, two fires roared, music played and everything was holiday festive.

It hardly gets better… to live a long, full, rich life, to have been healthy and active throughout, and to be home and comfortable in your final moments, surrounded by people who care about you… in his case, twin grandsons on either side holding his hands. There are a lot of ways to go out, but that seems pretty damn great.

I was reflecting a little on his life. A couple things struck me: he was surrounded for all his years by women with strong personalities (his mom, his sister, his wife and daughter) (and heck, let’s add his sister-in-law, though mom was not as regular a presence as those others). ┬áHe was a gentle, wise, steady presence–even-tempered, agreeable, understated. Always gentle. A counter balance to all the frenetic or dominant (?) energy around him. He didn’t compromise himself, but he was content to allow others to take charge, certain of his own compass, principles, needs.

I don’t think I will forget how he stood his ground on the hospital issue. Where it seemed a practical choice to transition to a hospital setting where care was a one-stop-shopping deal, he knew he did not want to go there and made it firmly clear. Thank god.

And it became really clear to me: he went out as he lived his life: with quiet but unwavering dignity. He reaped the respect of everyone around him, earned over a lifetime of consistently moral, ethical and kind regard for others.

It was a gift to be there… for all the emotional reasons–Uncle Vic is someone who’s been a cherished part of my life from the very start–but also for reasons related to process. I’ve considered doing volunteer work with hospice because there is so much about the process of death that I don’t understand (practically and spiritually) and I’ve thought it might be useful to try and understand it with eyes open, rather than otherwise. I’m not comfortable (at all) with the mythologies of religion’s approach to the subject and have wanted to be exposed to the realities when I am young enough to consider them in a more neutral state of mind.

I was fascinated by the hospice nurse’s information about what the body goes through and what to look for. I’m fascinated by the idea that Uncle Vic could hear us, even as he couldn’t respond in obvious ways. I imagine the morphine softens the experience, too, so you can face it, know you’re in process, but not fear it. Maybe that’s how it works. (Right? Anyone?)

I’m all over that. To anyone reading this: should I be so fortunate to reach old age in tact and of sound mind, my hope is to be home in pleasant surroundings; further surrounded by my people, warm love, music, stories and conversation. And enough morphine to take that edge off. I hope I have a smile on my face. This is my hope for everyone.

Thank you Uncle Vic for again being our wise counsel.

Here are a few photos to remember Uncle Vic by:

Here he’s 41, sitting in the living room at my grandparents’ house. The photo could have been taken on Christmas (looks so) and developed in January. Not sure if he’s snoozing or dealing with whatever that is on his lap.

Uncle Bud Uncle Vic 1

He’s 90 here… and looks so much like my dad.


Here are a few shots taken with each of us John Peterson kids:

A blurry one with me (he’s 89 here):


With Jay:


With Chris and Matt at his 90th… holy moly he looks like Grandpa here and a bit of dad…


.. and like Aunt Ellie here:


And my favorite… as a young man out on the trail. Smitty probably took this. For me, this is who he was, a lover of nature, trees and the mountains.


[As I get to that looming photo project, I will hunt down some others that represent different eras and passions… but this was the best I could come up with tonight.]