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Ellen Wayland-Smith

Death Rattle: The Body’s Betrayals

Transi tomb, Lula Tahula

Ellen-Wayland Smith | Longreads | March 2018 | 15 minutes (4,127 words)

One morning about a year ago I was sleeping on the sofa in my parents’ apartment when I was woken by the sound of my father dying in the next room.

At first I couldn’t tell what the noise was, or even locate where it was coming from. It was a ragged, scraping sound, like metal being pulled through tightly-packed glass. Then it shifted: like someone breathing in a viscous liquid in greedy gulps, aspirating yogurt. When I realized the noises were coming from my father’s throat, I froze.

According to the hospice manual I had scanned the night before, “death rattle” refers to the sound produced by “the pooling of secretions” in the throat after the body loses its ability to cough them up. “The air passing through the mucus causes this sound,” the booklet instructed me matter-of-factly. This symptom is listed under the rubric “When Death is Near.” Family members of the dying person frequently find this noise upsetting, according to the medical literature. Hospice workers recommend an anti-secretion medicine to dry up the mucous: one syringe-full against the gum.

We had had almost no time to prepare. A mere ten days earlier, my father had gone in to his doctor’s office to pick up the results of a routine scan, which turned out not to be routine at all: stage four pancreatic cancer. His physician, an old family friend, almost teared up when he delivered the news. “It is very difficult for me to say this to you,” he’d begun, gingerly. “Not as difficult as it is for me to hear it,” my father responded. He was 81 but looked much younger: six-foot-two, straight as a poker, salt-and-pepper hair and beard. After a bout with polio when he was 14, he’d never been sick a day in his life. We thought he was invincible.
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