Saturday, December 08, 2012

Twelve days of waiting....

I want to thank everyone who prayed for our family as we travelled from Salt Lake to San Diego to await Barbara's passing on Nov. 24, 2012, the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving.

We left to drive to San Diego on a Tuesday evening.
The first six hours of driving we were just quietly together, and so thankful that the snow storms that had brought several feet of snow to our area just a few days earlier were long gone.
Traffic was light; often there were no other cars on the road around us.
The lights of Las Vegas were easy to see in an otherwise dark time of travel.

Bernie had been able to book us into the Orleans Hotel there, at an incredible under $40 a night rate.
God seemed to be minding details for us like that.
I had to smile at where we were staying as New Orleans is one of my most favorite places to visit.
Tears continued to well up at unexpected moments during our brief over night stay but there were smiles too.
The room had a shower with an etched glass window that framed a perfect rosy morning sunrise.
The sunrise...brought me joy.

Then there were things that served to make us smile.
Who wouldn't chuckle at seeing a Santa Claus hatted alligator before breakfast?

Overhead carnival motif presented cheer in every direction.
We shared a breakfast of Banana Fosters French toast and crayfish cake topped eggs Benedict.
I never would have expected that in our hurry to get to San  Diego for the last moments with my beloved mother-in-law there would also come a gift of memories of happy times in New Orleans, revisited in Las Vegas.
If only Barbara could of been with us...she would have been belly laughing at the silly alligators and going "yummy!" over the Banana Fosters French toast too.

We still had six hours of driving ahead of us from Las Vegas to San Diego, and we were unsure if we would arrive in time to say a final good bye.
Thankfully we had had so many good conversations since we knew this time was coming that we could travel knowing all the important things had been said already.
As we came into San Diego county, the sky configured into the most unusual cloud formation.

We didn't stop...I clicked a picture through the windshield with my cell phone, shooting through the tinted top of the windshield.
That tinted part of the glass made the captured image even more interesting.

Shooting out the side window I captured the sun glowing through the off shore fragmented cloud layers.

We stopped to fill up at a small gas station.
The clouds can still be seen in the furrowed form above the station's roof.
Librarian me enjoyed the fact the gas station owner had taken the trouble to provide some background information about the area.
(Wish more gas stations would do that!)

We arrived safely in San Diego and were able to stay with at home until the end.
We learn that she had been glancing at her bedroom door and asking if we had arrived ever since we had left SLC.
We sat next to her bed and she asked for her glasses to see us.
Her daughter Shari (Bernie's sister) handed her her glasses and she put them on, but they were of no use.
She had lost her vision already.
She slowly took her glasses, folded them up and smiled as we spoke our love to her.

We held hands and just smiled and wiped tears silently.
She had decreed that no one was to be sad in her room...if we were choked up or sad we had to leave.
We didn't choke.
But we did weep silently.
Each of us staying in the home (Bernie's father Hal, Bernie's sister Shari, our daughter Laura and later Shari's son Michael) took turns sitting with Barbara, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, and sometimes all of us would gather around her together in an unspoken rhythm of love.

Laura and Shari took turns helping Barbara sit up or turn from side to side.
She spoke little but with smiles or frowns or small sounds let her needs be known.
They were simple needs: an ice chip, chapstick, lotion on hands, her hair brushed back.
We all smiled when she would wake in the morning and attempt to tidy her hair with her eyes still closed.

So we arrived in San Diego on a Wednesday, a week before Thanksgiving.
 That day Barbara was able to say a few sentences.
Two days later she was no longer speaking more than a simple word.
After that she fell silent.
The hospice team and Laura kept us informed of how she was doing.
Barbara herself had said she was in no pain and was not on any pain meds, just an anti nausea and a calming/anti-anxiety med via a port.
Occasionally Barbara would sit up and reach up above with her hand, her eyes looking up and away, a huge smile on her face.
We knew this is common at the end of life but I had never seen this before.
Do the dying see heaven?
 Barbara was asked if anyone was in the room with her...and Barbara said she saw Mark waiting in the corner.
Just Mark, Bernie's younger brother, a Christian, who had passed away three years ago.
At another time just before we arrived Barbara was heard to say "I am sorry...I didn't know...I didn't understand...I didn't know..." in a sorrowfully tone.  She paused, silent for a few moments, then she broke into a huge smile and her whole body relaxed.
Who was she talking to?
I can only imagine it was a conversation that included a place of forgiveness.

San Diego is a beautiful place to visit in autumn.
There is little in the way of fall colors, but there are seasonal changes to see.

Between the bronzed back magnolia leaves, pods are oozing out shiny blood red seeds,

The inland warmth causes coastal fogs that make the shimmering palms overhead look mystical.

A tiny sun struggles to break though the mist; pastel light brushes everything with a cool damp sheen.

Mornings became afternoons; afternoons became evenings, and then each night we said our good nights to each other and to the now silent Barbara, kissing her forehead and wondering if she would still be alive in the morning.
The house became a sacred space of golden light.
Barbara's bedroom caught the eastern and western light and soft hymns played constantly as she slept and woke in her own rhythm.
We ate take home Chinese meals, Mexican meals, and cooked up steaks.
I took a short break after six days to see a movie, and to visit my own parents.
On the sidewalk in front of their house the neighbor kids had drawn an epic game of hopscotch.
The poignancy of the simple things in life struck me hard as each day passed.
Laura slept on a mattress on the floor beside Barbara for two nights after she heard a sound that was different.
Barbara was having seizures.
Laura slept with one hand on Barbara, aware even in sleep as only a nurse granddaughter could be.
The next day additional medication controlled the seizures.  Barbara was no longer able to even take ice chips; she had had no food for twelve days and no water for six.
I did not think it was possible to go so long without water; Laura told me that she had seen hospice patients survive for weeks without fluids of any kind.

(Note: Barbara had experienced horrible stomach pain and vomiting after eating before we arrived and the doctor explained that most likely a tumor was blocking part of digestive system, part of the spreading of the already incurable pancreatic cancer.  Exploratory surgery perhaps could unblock the system but at this point in the illness the trauma of the surgery would be pointless. Barbara had already determined she did not want to undergo tube feeding, preferring to let her body shut down as it would naturally and in the most painless way possible.)


Laura had just a week or so earlier returned from a two week trip to Spain and Italy; on Thanksgiving Day she was to fly to Germany for a week.
She had been able to talk over these plans with Barbara weeks earlier.
Barbara said go...and enjoy your life.
We had seven days with Laura before she had to work a day and get ready to leave.

The next day our son Jeff, his wife Rachel and his son Luke arrived after their drive out from Salt Lake.
The small reunion was a happy moment for a great grandfather, and all of us.
The little family sat beside Barbara as she seemingly slept.
Luke crowed and made baby sounds, and patted his great grandmother's hand.
Did Barbara know he was there?
It didn't matter.
It just mattered that it felt right for him to be in the golden lit room with her as we talked together. 

(A picture taken of Luke considering the great Mexican food that he was not allowed to eat on their drive down from Salt Lake to San Diego.)

Day nine into our wait was Thanksgiving Eve. 
We had discussed what to do for the traditional Thanksgiving meal.
We had no idea if Barbara would still linger...or how many family members might be able to come join us for a meal.
A pre-cooked meal was ordered at the local grocery store and the next day Barbara was still with us.
Rachel helped set a simple table.
Left to right: 
Rachel, Jeff, Hal, Bernie, our nephew Tim and his wife Danielle, Shari, and our nephew Michael.
Tim lives in San Diego, Michael in New Mexico.
It was an added blessing to us that Michael was available to be with us for over ten days.
He was in the Middle East on business when we learned Barbara's time was short.
His wife was in San Diego attending her own grandmother's funeral; Mary visited with us and said her good byes; the next day she flew home to NM and Michael flew in to San Diego to stay for the duration and to be a support to his mom as Shari's husband was recovering from hand surgery in Kentucky.
I have heard it said that death is never convenient.
We were bless that this time of waiting somehow managed to fit into all of our schedules.
A good enough meal was served.
And the house smelled wonderful as pies were baked and other side dishes were cooked as well.
Could Barbara enjoy the scent of pumpkin pie and turkey from her room just down the hall from the kitchen?
I like to think so.
I think she somehow knew her family was in the house for Thanksgiving again.

I wondered how families manage with love ones slowly dying in hospitals.
What a gift it was that Barbara had decided to never leave her home; a decision that allowed us as a family to be together night and day in relative comfort that could never be found in a hospital or nursing home.
The days melted one into another.
One day it rained a bit...mostly it was sunny and bright, and unseasonably warm.
I was so glad I had at the last moment tossed a pair of shorts into my suitcase; at the time it seemed crazy to do so with a foot of snow outside our own house.
It was well into the 80s in San Diego.

I visited my parents again and was amused to see that a poinsettia cane stuck into the ground in their back yard last winter had grown well up and was now bobbing over my head.
Jeff and Rachel and the baby stayed with my folks during their visit.

Another brief getaway moment the day after Thanksgiving with my BFF Gail.
She lives in Colorado; her parents, like mine, live in San Diego.
We often have opportunity to see each other in San Diego over holidays for an hour or so.
This time we were able to go out for breakfast at the mall.
As we walked and talked a bit, Gail spotted a photo booth.
Sharing that as a kid her parents always told her it was too expensive to take photo booth pictures, she now greatly enjoys taking advantage of getting photo booth pictures taken whenever the opportunity is possible.
I am smiling as I write this...this is one of the reason why I love my friend Gail so much.
She looks for and finds reasons to be happy and celebrate the good things in life, including chances to take photo booth pictures in the morning after Thanksgiving!

This vigil awaiting the death of a love one was a first for me.
I had a few things to learn that I don't thing anyone would have ever dared to tell me about ahead of time.
I am going to dare to share some of what I learned that is both funny and useful information.

The first days we spoke in hushed tones, and sat with Bibles in hand, with tears leaking from our eyes.
I think it was the second day that several of us were quietly sitting beside a sleeping Barbara when my sister-in-law came into the room and softly asked what we would like on our pizza as her son Tim (who owns a pizza parlor) was coming down with pizza for all of us.
Now picture this:
Soft hymns are playing, and the room feels like a sacred space.
And now the question is posed: 
Do you want pepperoni?
It just felt so weird have such a question asked in such a space!
Two hours later I was discovering how great Tim's pizza tasted, and how much my body and soul needed such lovingly prepared good food.
Funny...our family often enjoyed eating pizza whenever we gathered there.
Barbara always loved having pizza with all of us.
And her sometimes stuffy old daughter-in-law Jill learned something that day:
Pizza is a wonderful food to eat even when one is sad and in tears.
I had a dear friend who had been through the death of several loved ones and she was kind enough to both pray for me and let me email her my thoughts and observations over the days.
I wrote her about how weird I found it to be to be asked about pepperoni beside a dying loved one.
She wrote back her own experience of having a loved one pass away during a long night vigil, and while awaiting the removal of the body, finding herself trying to locate a bakery where muffins could be bought to feed the mourning family.
As she put it:
"the living go on living".
So true.
What she didn't know was how susceptible I am to any mention of food.
The next morning I woke up hungry for....muffins.
I wrote her that...she wrote back she would pray that someone would bring us muffins.
I did not mention any of this correspondence to anyone...
(No one was bringing us food, save one enchilada casserole one night; muffins were definitely not something to be expected.)
Two, three more days went by.
Shari and Michael took a short break to go visit other family in the area one evening.
I went to bed around 11pm, and uncharacteristically awoke at 5 am.
Got up and went into the kitchen where to my utter amazement sat a huge box of bakery muffins!
I wrote my friend an email: Her muffin prayer had mysteriously been answered, and perhaps we should have asked for world peace instead?
(Adding to the surrealness of finding muffins: My father-in-law slept with the television on during the night and as I beheld the muffins in the dark there was the background music of an old silent movie era movie playing, and my nephew was gently snoring on the couch in the family room. It felt a bit like how it feels to be alone beside a lit Christmas tree in the middle of the night on Christmas eve.)

Another moment of joy: We took a walk down to the beach and I got to see the first time Luke had even been in a swing.
His smile and the laugh was so healing to my very heavy heart.

For twelve days we were together around the clock as a family in a way that we had never been together before.
Bernie and his sister had never spent so much time together since they were teens.
Bernie and I had never had more than an evening together with Michael since he was a child.
In short and long conversations we got to know each other as family and as adults.
Laura and Michael talked as adults too; Michael had married while Laura was in her early teens and he had left the area soon after.
As each day passed and we wondered how much longer Barbara would last, we experienced a beautiful time together.
We slept in bedrooms, couches, and on mattresses on the floor.
Mornings found us taking turns for the shower, grabbing coffee and sharing the newspaper.
I often had wondered what it would be like to share a home with extended family as is the custom in many cultures.
I found having family about me was wonderful, comforting, friendly, kind and I reflected on how often I felt very lonely in my empty nest home with just "us two" and some goofy cats.
Day eleven came...Bernie and I, Jeff and Rachel all would be needing to leave the next day, and Michael would need to fly home the day after.
We wondered how it would feel if we had to leave while she lived.
Day eleven there was a subtle change in Barbara.
Hospice came and helped bath her in the bed, and told us it was no longer necessary to turn her every four hours.
We looked for the signs of passing and saw none save a slightly longer exhale than inhale.
We went to bed wondering again if this would be our final time of saying "Good night Mom, I love you."

Saturday morning, day 12, Nov. 25, Hal awoke early, as was his way.
He checked on Barbara, holding her hand and putting his face close to hers.
She breathed still.
He left the room and ten minutes later came back again...and she was gone.
He called Michael to check, then called for Bernie and Shari.
It was about 8:40 am, another beautiful golden sunlit morning.
Barbara looked peaceful with the morning sun streaming into her room and had I not noticed that she was not breathing I would not have been able to tell that she was gone.
Someone called Hospice.
We were all still in our pajamas, in tears, and each of us found ourselves hugging and crying and somehow rejoicing that Barbara was having her first beautiful morning in heaven.
I had a moment by myself alone with her body.
I touched her forehead and tearfully thanked her for her final gift to us:
She passed in the beauty of a sunlit morning instead of in the darkness of night.
And thanked her that she waited until the morning when we had to leave, and not a moment sooner, giving us the gift of precious and healing family time together.

The hospice nurse came, confirmed the death and called for someone to come to pick up Barbara's body.
Hal had asked that we all stay only until the body was removed, and asked that we leave immediately afterwards as he wished to be alone.
For twelve days we all had kept our suitcases and personal belongings tightly gathered knowing that we would be needing to leave quickly after her passing, not trusting that in such a moment our wits would be around us enough to find scattered belongings.
As it turned out, something of ours was left behind.
Our family Bible...was left beside Barbara's bed.

By eleven we were driving back to Utah with Jeff and Rachel with us in a casual convoy.
We spent the night in Mesquite where we had dinner together.
Sunday was spent driving past snow capped mountains in southern Utah, a beautiful part of the state that lends itself well to much needed quiet reflection.
And then we were home again.

I wanted to write about the twelve days before now, but it all seemed rather unreal once we got home.
Mail had stacked up while we were gone, and Christmas trimming was to be seen lighted up in the neighborhood.
This year I decorated my house for Christmas early.
Missing that golden glow of Barbara's room and family affection, I chose to trim our tree in gold and silver.
I think about how her days have passed in heaven.
And how we who remain go on living, and celebrating, knowing that one day we will have a time to hug once more  in heaven.