The Angel of Death

When my dad was dying, I slept over nights in Intensive Care during his first days in hospital. He’d had a stroke and was breathing with a respirator. After several days hooked up, he decided to go for it without support on a ward to see if he could make it. We had two weeks with him there before he died, and for two weeks I watched him interact with the nurses who came every few hours to clear out his lungs — greeting them by name, chatting about the countries they came from, thanking them. We read Alice in Wonderland, and Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard with him, two favorite books he reread regularly. I played him music: Brahms, Albeniz, John McCormack.

Those nights alone with him in ICU, I remember especially. Listening to his apnea-belaboured breathing, the darkness lit only by the green glow of the machines measuring his vital signs. I’d get drowsy and drift off remembering the last time we’d done this, when I was sick with TB in the Toronto General, and he came every day to be with me. That was forty-five years ago and he is long gone now. Yet, high on penicillin and infection, time warping, emotions raw, I dreamt of him and startled myself by repeatedly turning to greet him when the door to my room swung open.

One night, I woke from a deep sleep aware there was someone in the room. I been awakened, but not in the least abruptly. The only light was the phosphorescent glow of the machine feeding me penicillin so I could see little. But I could detect a figure standing by my bed at a discrete distance. He scarcely moved and was speaking to me in a quiet, assured voice. It took a long minute to pull myself into semi-consciousness and pinpoint who he was — not my father, but the doctor in charge of my medical team. I’d met him twice in daylight, and remember brown hair and a slight build, neither visible at that moment. It was the demeanour I recognized. Unassuming, comforting.

I remember saying something to him about not being able to do interviews at midnight… and apologizing. I said it twice. He said he would come back another time and faded back into the dark. I fell back into sleep. The next morning I awoke inconsolable. I’d been told the doctor did his rounds at night, so I should not have been freaked. Nevertheless I spent the day weeping on and off; even had to call in morale support. At the time, I put it down to the shock of the doctor’s unannounced appearance. Now, I believe it was the aftershock of not being frightened when it happened.

Truth is, I’ve no idea how he did it. Woke me up so gently it felt like being carried into wakefulness rather than being forced out of sleep. I fairly floated to the surface. Once awake, I’d no idea what territory I was in, and didn’t much mind. On some level I was back in ICU with Dad, listening to the noisy silence, feeling the world contract, wondering if death comes on the exhaling or the inhaling breath.

I slept fitfully over the next several nights, returning again and again to an image of the Angel of Death. I thought of Milton’s Paradise Lost and the captivating lines he gives Lucifer which we fall for every time. “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” Lucifer. The bringer of light. What would the bringer of dark be like? He too is an ambiguous figure; equal parts disturbing and fascinating, good and evil. In my imagining, his wings are thick and strong and made for silent flight, more owl than eagle. An intimidating character for sure, but not necessarily menacing, not always horrifying. That’s the paradox.

A few nights later the doctor returned at exactly same time: ten minutes to midnight. In spite of my request that he see me in daytime. I was partly awake this time and the light was on — struggling as I was to reattach the IV machine I’d unplugged for a trip to the bathroom. So we spoke. He outlined the plan to keep me on antibiotics for five more weeks. I wondered vaguely where I’d stay all that time.

I admit I didn’t understand his insistence on seeing patients in the middle of night. Nor did I understand why I was so undone by it. I did understand the good doctor was everything you could want in an infectious disease detective : meticulous, suspicious, over-cautious. So I continued to be perplexed by the fact I’d not been frightened when I awoke to find a strange man in my room. Until it occurred to me I’d been catapulted into a strange and quite exceptional space, one I’ve only experienced once or twice before when I’ve felt I was operating in two places (or memories) at once, as if the past flips into the present. I’m not sure what to call it. Waking dreams? Sleep-reverie?

Looking back, I can’t say for sure who was in my room that night. An angel come to say it wasn’t my time? My father conjured in dreamtime, and dragged into real time? The grandmothers and grandfathers taking care? There are many narratives. But if there was a moment when I finally tumbled to the gravity of what I was going through, this was probably it.

Wherever I was that night, I am grateful now that I was woken for I can still call up the exorbitant sense of well-being I felt. That lovely deep and seductive calm.


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