photo: Arlene Gottfried
La Mort de Mon Frère
Rick van Valkenburg
Christmas morning, 1994. Eric had been gravely ill and was in St. Vincent's Hospital on the 15th floor with a beautiful view looking west. The early morning had been one of freezing rain which started to clear as the morning sun broke through and David woke and saw a rainbow out of his apartment window and called Eric in his hospital room to look out of his window at the rainbow arc above the Hudson River Valley.
When I heard about this miracle on the day of the Birth of the Light I knew god had given us the wonderful gift of Eric's presence and life for another year.
He left the hospital in early January and went back to work at his job at the Hospital for Joint Diseases. In the first week of March our patriarch, Grandpa Faye Van Valkenburg died just short of his 96th birthday. I always felt that Grandpa's longevity formed a shield of protection around our family, as Grandpa never lost any of his progeny. Eric and our whole family went to Michigan for the funeral and we were able to see many aunts, uncles and cousins we had not seen for many years.
The travel proved to be a bit much for Eric and he fell ill again for about six weeks and after another relatively brief hospitalization recovered enough in late spring to go home and go back to work and spend many weekends down at the Jersey Shore throughout the summer with David at their little cottage in Ocean Grove.
Eric started to lose a battle with CMV retinitis which caused him to lose vision and eventually complete loss of site out of his right eye. His weight kept going down and his metabolism was slowing down.
In the fall the virus entered the brain he started to lose "cognitive function". I call it being in the "NOW". He lost short-term memory and lived exclusively in the immediate present. He stopped working his job on November 3rd and after an unsuccessful attempt to stop the progression at St. Vincent's hospital he was transferred to an extended care facility in the Lower East Side shortly after Thanksgiving.
He seemed stable, confused but stable. He was not comfortable, but did not have agonizing pain. His weight was down to 143 lb. (I am now about 80 lb heavier than that.) The Friday before Christmas 1995 he "took a turn" and it was rapidly downhill after that. Mary, Sophia and I spent quite a bit of time with him on Christmas Eve, my parents were with him Christmas (we had gone up to Connecticut to try to give Sophia a "normal" Christmas.) David had been with him daily, at least four hours a day.
Sophia had gotten ill with fever Christmas night and was up all night so our departure was delayed Tuesday, Dec. 26th. After finally getting back into Manhattan, I arrived at his side 6:30pm and found that he had suffered seizures earlier and was in a coma. I held his hand and told him I was here and he grasped it tightly, holding on literally for dear life. David was at his side on the other side of the bed. Eric, on oxygen, was breathing strongly. His eyes were open, but doing REM like one dreaming.
The nurses came to turn him and David and I left for a little walk around the corridors. We sat for a few minutes and wondered when and whether this was a "vigil," a death watch. Having worked in a hospital at one time, I knew that patients in a coma can linger for days, weeks, months. David said that his routine was a vigil, but he would not participate in a deathwatch. He would keep his daily routine of being at Eric's side from 4pm to 8pm. I wondered aloud about the time. I felt it must be 8:30, but the clock on the wall said 7:30. 8:30 stuck in my mind. My numberless Cheerios watch was open to interpretation. We walked back to the room.
As we sat there, I noticed Eric's breathing pattern started to change. I asked David to tell me the story of how they met and as he told the story and told of their love and their lives together, Eric's breathing became less frantic, more relaxed.
David put on his coat and left for the evening. I went into the closet and pulled out a little radio that I had bought Eric for a Christmas present. I put in on the bed and tuned in a classical music station. I pulled the curtain for a little privacy and held Eric's hand. A Mozart piano concerto was playing. I leaned in closer. His eye movements started to slow and then our eyes met.
He saw me! We held each other, locked in our eternal gaze, the most precious moment, purest essence of love. The world dissolved into white with the darkness of his pupil in the center. He slowly exhaled three times and never inhaled again.
A little after 8:30 pm, a nurses aide walked in. I said,"His breathing has changed."She took his pulse and said,"He's gone."