UPDATE:
See Dee Bird’s tribute to Neil – and his obituary at her blog.

My brother, Herbert “Neil” Meitzler, passed away last evening. The family was there beside him to ease his journey – but looking back on the experience, I’m not so sure that the watch wasn’t only for him, but for the family as a whole.

I got notice that Neil had pancreatic cancer about 3 or 4 months ago. I called him the same day, and we talked a bit on the phone. He assured me that once the shock of realizing that he had a terminal illness was over, that he had put his faith in God (a faith bestowed upon him by our mother), and felt he had no fear of death. We lived about 600 miles apart, so haven’t seen a lot of each other in the last 20 years, During the last two months, I’ve driven to Walla Walla, Washington twice, just to spend time with him. It was time well spent.

On Friday, my brother, Steve, called me, telling me that time was short. I was on the road an hour later, and arrived Friday evening, finding that Neil was quickly fading, and that his daughters had been round-the-clock caring for him for a couple of weeks, as he became less mobile, then bed-ridden. Carrie had spent the previous night by his side, not wanting to leave him during this most-difficult of all times. Arriving Friday evening, I had a chance to say my goodbyes – and thought he might not make it through the night. Finally, it seemed that he would, and Carrie volunteered to again be there during the night for him. The next morning (Saturday), we gathered around his bed. He was actually a bit more cognizant of what was happening than he had been the night before.

The family spent the day on the deathwatch. Someone always held his hand, not out of some kind of responsibility, but out of our sincere love and the wish to be there, letting him know that we cared for him. Every little bit, we’d swab out his mouth, attempting to keep it moist, as having ones’ mouth all dried-out must be extremely uncomfortable. As I said before, the watch was for us as well. We read scripture aloud. We sang – every now and then someone would begin to sing one of the family’s favorite hymns (lots of Bill and Gloria Gather material especially), and the rest of the family would join in – singing in 4-part harmony. I like to think that this was helpful for Neil, but I know that it helped the family deal with Neil’s pending loss to us. We exchanged stories of family experiences, especially those in which Neil played a major part. A local pastor that worked for hospice came by several times, comforting the family, and assuring Neil of God’s love.

Just after 8 p.m. last night Neil’s breath began to be more shallow. I had noticed that his pulse in the previous hour was extremely erratic – so much so that it was becoming more difficult to count. What had been a strong heartbeat of 140 beats per minute, had slowed down considerably. At 8:30, my dear brother took his last breaths, and his heart stopped. By 8:31 pm on Saturday, February 21, 2009, Neil was returned to the care of his heavenly father. Goodness… I can’t see the screen, as my eyes are overflowing something awful.

I wrote the above, not as a tribute to my brother (I promise I’ll do that a bit later), but as an admonition to my readers. If at all humanly possible, do not miss the deathwatch for your loved ones. It’s important to the family – and plays an important part in the life cycle.

Now I must go… I have a long road trip ahead of me today, but not nearly as long as the journey Neil took last night.

I invite my readers and many friends to take a moment to add a bit about your family’s deathwatch experiences in the “comments” section below.