All my life, people have passed away either way too young or just old enough to have “had a good life.” But like the miracle of birth, the mystery of death always happens in its own time. It cares nothing about convenience or preparedness. No one ever asks me if I’m ready.
I was 13 when my mother died at the age of 42, both of us way too young. A lifetime later, I’d learned I was pregnant with my second child just two weeks after having my dad die at the age of 74. For weeks after his passing, I scoured the obituaries in the paper for other people who’d passed away at such a young age and it embarrassed me a little when I was relieved to find someone. Collective misery felt less isolating. It still does.
To help us through both births and deaths, we look to the people best versed in handling these fragile bits of life — the midwives and the hospice nurses, the doulas and the comfort care specialists. There are no scenarios where we want to go it alone — yet, in death, one can only hold someone’s hand so far. Each of us will take those final steps alone.
I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot lately, with Covid 19 swirling through the atmosphere, pressing down on our lives. So many are sick and dying in hospitals, alone except for the nurses, doctors, and care providers. No loved ones to hold their hands. No one who can whisper that it’s ok to let go, that they are loved beyond measure. I’ve watched, from the safety of my home, the news stories of individuals dying alone, of hospital and healthcare workers who’ve managed to get through one more day, often hanging by a thread.
In the midst of this global pandemic, this world-wide shutting down, my sister-in-law — my sister by another mother — found herself in the hospital, weak and unable to breathe well. They tested for Covid, multiple times, and each time the test came back negative. After many tests, it appeared that she was now facing the tail end of a blood disorder she was diagnosed with a decade ago. Her blood counts frighteningly low, her blood pressure falling, her weakness working its way through every cell in her body. At this acute stage, there are no cures — only heroic measures which she had made clear she did not want. At just 65, Leslie died in the quiet darkness of early morning.
We live far away. Years ago, she moved up to one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Bellingham, Washington. She was a master weaver and talented knitter. She collected spinning wheels and looms like some people collect seashells and I imagine that her tiny home is chock full of colorfully textured yarns, all sizes of knitting needles, and stacks of patterns she designed — a knitter’s treasured island. On this island, she found friendships and community. Her caring heart found other caring hearts; on this peaceful, idyllic island she found a place of belonging. There, she created her piece of heaven on earth.
The distance from the congestion of the Bay Area was good for my dear sister-in-law — but not so good when illness came knocking. The island has little by way of healthcare and she had to travel by ferry to a mainland hospital. With restrictions from Covid 19, we weren’t able to travel up there to see her. While she rested peacefully in hospice, the distance felt insurmountable, a grand canyon keeping us apart. Even before her passing, our grief felt just as wide as that canyon and twice as deep.
She must have known the seriousness of what was happening because just before slipping into an unresponsive state, she tried to get financial account information to my husband with little success. I was able to speak with her for a few, brief moments and even as weak as she was, a tiny bit of her humor poked through. I told her how much I wished I could be up there with her and her response was, “You’d risk Covid for ME?” She chuckled. I smiled that she still could tease. Leslie knew when she moved to the island that this might be the way life would unfold but opted to move there in search of happiness. Who could have argued with that?
When my mother died, my dad took the four of us, all young children, to the hospital to say our good-byes. When my dad died, we were all there, gathered round, praying — each in our own way. When my father-in-law died last year, I was able to hold his hand and let him know that I’d take good care of his son and his granddaughters, that we were all ok . . . that he didn’t need to worry about us. Today, though, with all of us sheltering in place, we had to say our good-byes and comfort each other from a distance. It’s been surreal. We have no blueprints on how to muddle through.
Still, hospice was a blessing. Like the midwives and doulas who helped me usher my babies from the womb to the world, I believe hospice workers are the faces of God here on earth, helping all of us say our good-byes and helping our loved ones make that final journey from this world to the next. Their caring and tenderness makes room for all of us. They open up space for both grief and humor, for confusion and comfort, for a rush of memories and a soft place to land as we grapple with the present. They held up her phone as we facetimed our presence. We love you, we told her. We want you to have peace, we explained. We will be ok if you have to go, we lied a little bit. And then again, in case she really could hear us, we told her again that we loved her.
Two nights ago, shrouded in darkness just before sleep, my husband wondered aloud what might be going through his sister’s mind. She was deep in a morphine-blessed sleep, exchanging her breaths easily. I have no idea where her mind was taking her but I remember, fondly, how in my dad’s final days he went to all the places he loved and where he felt loved the most. For him, it was his Greek Easter celebration — family and chaos, loud and loving. I imagine Leslie was also with the people in the places she loved the most. I imagine she spent time during Christmas with family or sitting across the kitchen table from her mom. She probably took a long drive with her dad and walked her dogs along the beach — first Chewy and then Heidi. I could see her sitting at one of her many looms, focusing on her latest creation. My guess is she had conversations with all of us about how and when she would know she was ready. I believe she might have been trying to tell us things we needed to know before she would let go and I hope she knew how hard we were trying to listen. Most of all, I hope she felt loved beyond measure, embraced by all of us.
Of course, I have no idea if this is really what was going on, but I do believe if there is a God, this may be the final act of grace at the end of our lives, that we are able to feel all the love from all our time on earth. It means peace for the dying — and gives those of us who are left behind, comfort. At least it does for me.
Yesterday we heard that Leslie’s breathing was more labored. Did you know that hospice nurses have names for all the different kinds of breathing one does in the end? It fascinates me but all I wanted to know was when changes were underfoot. We knew it wouldn’t be long. We spent most of yesterday hanging on, in that terrible time of suspension and anticipation, waiting. It strikes me as a little ironic that often there is so much waiting at both the beginning and the end of our lives. The anticipation on both ends feels endless. But I knew that once the waiting was over, the long road of grieving would begin and that’s a journey I’ve been so reluctant to take again. As a social worker once told me, each loss touches on all your prior losses . . . each grief is shaped by all the grieving you’ve ever done. I’m never ready for that work, but life never really asks me anyway. And so it begins.
*I do not have any pictures of Leslie’s looms or spinning wheels. The featured picture was one I found by googling “spinning wheel public domain photograph.”