It’s not like I don’t have a lot to do today. It’s just that I want to sit here and cry. It’s life back to normal for everyone else. I barely knew her, and I can’t organize myself to put clothes on.
I have plenty of work to do—a full 10 hours. I have errands to run, like pick up my glasses, buy half and half, and get fingernail polish remover. I need to work on taxes. But I don’t want to let the most important thing slip by me, and at this moment, I don’t know what to do with it.
It’s life. A life that slips by. It’s a life that we don’t know what to do with. It’s a slow drip, moment to moment until it’s quietly gone.
This morning at 4:15 AM this went away for someone. Or was taken—I’m not sure how it all works. We don’t really understand the mechanics of how a life is removed from Planet Earth.
Karen and I were not close, we met for the first time months prior, but she was very close to someone close to me, and this person is off to the races and I’m the one sitting here crying about it. Not that either position is bad or wrong; we all deal with grief differently. He and I are different people in different places with different lives and various and sundry needs and demands.
5 hours ago I sat with someone who took her last breath, literally, and I watched what that looks like. We had increased the morphine from 1 to 2. Upped the Lorazepam a skooch. Well, we didn’t, the hospice nurse did. Karen was experiencing pain indicated by the shaking of her hands and groans that came from inside the deepest parts of her. We pressed a button and the nurse came in.
After Karen settled, 2 of us went away to sleep for 2 hours, leaving 2 grandchildren behind. On schedule, we returned at 3 am. Karen was hooked up and beeping, quietly sleeping, long labored breaths that made her cheeks go in and out and the sheets go up and down. We shook 1 grandchild awake. She stretched and left and we took her spot. There is nothing more somniferous than a hospital room at 3 am. Rhythmic beeping and rhythmic sleeping. We huddled together and said quiet things in quiet voices.
Time ticked. And then there was a moment where I cocked my head and looked more deeply.
“Hun, she’s not moving.”
He looked up and then got up. Sure enough, she wasn’t.
How can it be that it happens like that? We were sitting right there, quietly discussing her life, our lives, and the various people that come from the separateness and collectiveness of that. Her grown grandson was flopped in the corner, asleep at awkward angles on the undersized hospital couch. We were right there, discussing events about her, and details of her, and circumstances of her and still we missed it. The last moment.
How is that possible? What an impossibly quiet exit from this thing called life.
How quickly the body went cold. It hadn’t been a minute or two when her arm felt like it had just been taken from the refrigerator. It hit me that it’s life that heats up a body. All this time I thought it was the sun. Or the radiator. We kept looking for movement. It wasn’t there. Have you ever really looked at a body not moving at all? None whatsoever? How dependent we are on the subtlest movements for the hints and regularities of life.
At the time, which is now five and a half hours ago, I was struck by how quickly her skin went from a shade of pink to the color of yellow-white. Without teeth and missing one eye, the body left looks nothing like the body that once was. It’s not gruesome, at least it wasn’t for me, but it was surreal.
Where did she go? An explosion that goes unnoticed and leaves without a trace.
When she was alive, but moments ago, we sat there, in waiting, having said everything we needed to say and having felt all the feelings we had. Then, the second she was gone, an endless stream of questions came pouring in and feelings I had never felt before came with it. It was as if everything left in her jumped in me, and I stood there dumbfounded and ill-equipped to deal with it.
Wait! Come back! What just happened?
At 4:15 AM a small woman, in a small room, in a rather small hospital, in an equally small town, quietly slipped away. Right before our very eyes. Minutes was all it took for the nurse to come back in, check her vitals, and softly nodded her head yes with the kindest eyes you have ever seen. We stood there at the foot of her bed like oddly separated bowling pins. How bizarre that a single throw made it possible for the 3 of us to still be standing. I am the small curvy pin, sandwiched between two stoic and boxy bigger pins. I held back a river of tears in order to seem like part of the team, and we left.
Honestly, that’s it.
As instructed, we had looked through the closet and checked her body for jewelry (there was none). On the way out we paused awkwardly at the nurse’s station to say thank you. Naturally, there was a form. We checked the boxes and signed on the line. The extremely wonderful nurse smiled back. This woman made what I would consider the weirdest, hardest job on the planet look graceful. And then we walked out. Does that seem right? This doesn’t feel right to me.
Like bowling pins, we came together and made our way down an absurdly clean hallway. Anyone observing us would say that we looked like 3 people walking down the hallway. But on the inside, I was still standing next to the discarded body, the one where its inhabitant had clearly jumped ship. I am wondering about what happens next. On one hand, the disposal of a body with a tick and a check seems all very tidy. A bit of a relief. You say goodbye and walk away. And on the other hand, it seems too far removed from the purpose of a life given.
My mind Rolodex-ed. What do people do? Was I a pioneer? I would fold her arms across her chest and close her eyes and cover her with a blanket. Then, because she was in the only bed we had, I would cross the drafty wood plank floors, slip my overalls and boots on over my oatmeal-colored long johns, and, though still dark, I would creak the door open and cross the clearing to the tree line with my shovel. Or was I in ancient Egypt? I imagined my fingers drenched in honey-colored oil, rubbing the body, rubbing the cloth, and creating perfectly symmetrical layers around each limb. Or was I out bush? Shrieking and wailing and calling out in ceremony around a fire that would shortly consume her?
I’m not any of these. As the twenty-first century, first-world westerner, we sign the dotted line giving permission for someone, somewhere, at some time, to prepare the body.
What on earth does the word ‘prepare’ mean?
My body, including my head, was ravaged by exhaustion. The hallway was long but not that long and I had but a few moments to figure out what to do with the body. My mind continued to spin through time looking for a place to land. I couldn’t just leave her there. Everything was aching inside me and the frail amount of energy I had was still working to hold back tears.
So I took her to the best place I could think of on such short notice. Just before the hospital exit doors slid open, there she was, all gussied up in a gold spandex disco suit, complete with a cape, goggles, and matching leather gloves. Her little granny butt looked like dollar pancakes stuck to a fence post. The doorway blew open at the press of a button and her cape started wildly flapping. She stood there hanging onto the riveted steel handles for dear life. I pulled back on the thrust and let it idle; it was time. Here was the universe and a brilliant display of stars. She looked back at me with a twinkle in her eye. She said goodbye with a smile and jumped.
“Whooooooopppppeeeeeee” was all I heard and then, the familiar rush of air. Out she went to God. In nanoseconds, the tiny spec of golden light was gone.
The next morning, right on time, the granddaughter went to school. The son went to work and I, the least important of them all, can’t figure out what forces in the universe are going to get me to walk across the room and get a cup of coffee. I have no idea how or why life seems to make sense to everyone but me.
Goodbye golden spec of golden light. I’m thinking of you.