This is the ninth in a series of blog posts about losing a loved one. I have been writing it as it happened, one day at a time.
October 30 & 31st, 2016
I fell into bed exhausted from the physical and emotional strain. When the phone rang at 11:00 p.m., I was momentarily confused and disoriented. I fumbled with the phone for a few seconds before I figured out how to answer it.
The woman on the phone said, “I am Doctor P, and I’m calling to let you know that Jean’s heart is failing, and I need to know if you want us to give her a pacemaker.”
I sat up on the edge of the bed and tried to gather my wits. I said, “If you put in a pacemaker, will she be able to recover and go back to living in her apartment?”
Doctor P said, “No. She’s not going to be able to do that. She will have to go to a nursing home.”
I took a deep breath and said, “Dr. P, I believe there are some things worse than death, and I believe that losing her independence and having to live in a nursing home would be a living hell for Jean.”
Dr. P said, “I couldn’t agree more.”
I said, “If Jean were your aunt, would you want to give her a pacemaker?”
Dr. P said, “I would not.”
I said, “Okay. Let’s not do it.”
When I laid back down, I felt sick and conflicted. Had I sentenced her to death, or had I prevented her from unnecessary suffering? I said a prayer for Jean, for the doctors, and for me, and eventually, I went back to sleep.
At 4:00 a.m., the phone rang again. This time it was Venice, the lovely nurse who had asked about Jean’s advance directive Sunday morning. She said, “Jean had a stroke around 3:30, and I’m calling to see if you want us to continue treatment, or if you want us to transition her to comfort care.”
I said, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
I threw on my clothes and drove to the hospital. I had to enter through the Emergency doors. There was a woman talking to a man wearing a security uniform. She wasn’t sure how to get to the elevators.
I told her I was going to the elevator, and I would be happy to show her the way. As we were walking, I asked her what brought her to the hospital so early in the morning.
She said, “My daughter is having a baby! What about you?”
I said, “My ninety-year-old aunt is dying,” and my tears started to flow. As the elevator doors opened, I said, “I guess this is the way it works. One soul comes in and one soul goes out.”
When I got to Jean’s room, she was not conscious. Venice came in and gave me a big hug. She said, “At 3:00 o’clock this morning Jean was trying to get out of bed, and her bed alarm went off. The CNA went in and asked if she could help. Jean said, ‘Yes. Please get my bill ready. I want to check out.’ The CNA told her that she didn’t handle the billing and Jean would need to wait until morning. I think she had a stroke about half-an-hour later.”
I nodded and said, “That’s our Jean.” I know she thought if she could just get out of the hospital and go home that she would be fine.
I sat by Jean’s bed as Venice removed the patches that recorded her heart rate and the IV bag with the antibiotics. She left the room, and a few minutes later came in with a soft, pale yellow comfort blanket. She gently spread it over Jean’s chest and abdomen. I scooted up close to the bed, took Jean’s hand in mine and told her once again that it was okay to let go, and that God would welcome her. I told her that Frank and Mom and Dad would be so excited to see her. I told her I was so happy that she had moved from Florida to be near to me and my family and that we had all loved having her close to us for the last ten years. I said I would miss her and I would never forget her.
Her eyes were closed, but her mouth was open, and she struggled for each breath. She was not peaceful. She was fighting––hard. Jean did not want to die, but it was clear to me that her fierce determination wasn’t going to be enough to overcome pneumonia and heart failure. (I did not tell her at any point that if she hadn’t been so stubborn and pig-headed about getting vaccinations, that she might have avoided this fatal illness.)
At 7:45 I sent a text message to my children and told them what was happening. My son Robert responded immediately, texting, “I’m on my way.”
I didn’t ask or expect any of them to come, but when he walked in the door and gave me a big bear hug, I was incredibly happy to see him. I thought he might check in and visit for a few minutes and then leave for work, but he said he wanted to stay.
Our priest came mid-morning to give Jean the Last Rites. Rob and I stood with Mother Ann as she delivered the sacrament. Releasing Jean through prayer was calming, reassuring, and at the same time stunning. I had expected to move Jean into a rehab facility and eventually assisted living. I had not expected her to die.
Throughout the day Julie, Jean’s daytime RN, came in often to administer doses of morphine and anti-anxiety medication. She was gentle, patient, and kind to Jean and to us. I showed her some videos on my phone of interviews I had recorded of Jean sharing her memories of our family, and we all laughed through our tears.
Alex stopped in often in between running errands. He joined Rob and me for lunch, and when I asked him to go to Costco to buy Halloween candy, he said, “I don’t think you want to do that tonight.”
The idea of not being home for Halloween was really upsetting. I have dressed up as a gypsy and told fortunes for the last thirteen years. Kids who started coming to our house as toddlers are now teenagers and some of them still stop by to say hello and have me tell their fortunes. I knew Alex was right, but that didn’t make it any easier.
By mid-afternoon, our physical and emotional energy was flagging. Around 3:00 o’clock, a CNA brought in a tray with a pot of coffee and two snack boxes. There were cheese and crackers, peanut butter, fruit, and cookies. Rob and I didn’t know we needed anything, but that unexpected gift of food and compassion gave us a badly needed energy boost, and we were deeply appreciative.
Rob’s companionship was another thing I wouldn’t have asked for or expected. The last time we had spent a full day visiting was when his wife Erica had brain surgery. He must have remembered how important it was to have companionship on that difficult day. For him to be with me through the entire day was an incredible gift.
Annie stopped in after work. She couldn’t believe that Jean had been so alert on Sunday afternoon and was now so close to death. We all sat next to Jean’s bed and watched her struggle for each breath. Julie came in frequently to check on her and to administer more doses of morphine and anti-anxiety medication.
Shortly before 6:00 p.m., Alex came into the room. All four of us noticed a sudden change in Jean’s breathing. I heard a few gurgling sounds. I stood up and went to her side. I took her hand in mine and told her once again that it was okay to let go. Within a minute the gasps and gurgles stopped. She was gone.
I kissed her forehead and said goodbye. Julie looked in and we told her it was over. She removed the IV, hugged me, and then pulled the curtain, closed the door and left us to grieve as a family. There were tears and hugs and a sense of shock and sadness, as well as relief that she was no longer struggling.
After Robert and Annie left, Alex and I went back into Jean’s room. Julie joined us. I asked her if I should take Jean’s rings off or if I should let the funeral home handle it. She said, “I think you should take them now.”
I said, “Julie, I need to ask you for a favor. Would you please take them off? I can’t do it. It just feels like a terrible invasion of her personal property.”
Julie said, “Of course.” She took them off and put them in a pink denture cup. She drew a heart on the lid and handed it to me. I put it in my purse. Alex and I gathered up Jean’s clothes and shoes. I kissed her one more time, and we walked out of the room.
I looked at my watch. It was 7:30. I told Alex we couldn’t go home. I wasn’t prepared for trick-or-treaters and there was no way I could be in the house and not open the door.
We walked to a lovely waiting room near the elevators and I called my three brothers and my son Eric. After I’d told Eric the news, he said Melissa, our 8-year-old granddaughter wanted to talk to me. She was crying when she asked, “Grandma, is Aunt Jean going to be okay?”
I said, “Yes, sweetheart. She is. She died, but she’s going to be with God now. She’ll get to be with her sister, her husband, and all of other the people she loved who died before she did. She’s going to be fine.”
Melissa sniffled and said, “Okay, Grandma.”
After that, we drove to Jean’s favorite restaurant and had a good meal and a glass of wine in her honor.
My emotions were a tangle of stunned sadness and relief. The pain in my back and legs was searing. Through dinner, Alex and I talked about what would need to happen next. We had six to start the process of cleaning out Jean’s apartment and settling her estate before I checked into the hospital for my back surgery.
We knew it was going to be difficult, but we also knew that we had the support of family and friends and that we would figure it out one day at a time. When we were certain that there would be no more trick-or-treaters, we went home and fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.