Monday, August 30, 2010

Farewell, My Lovely

Verna, my wife for slightly more than 19 years, died this morning peacefully in her sleep at 12:07.

For the past ten days or so I had been going to bed between 11 pm and midnight and then leaving Verna with a nighttime caregiver. Her two brothers, Jim and Marty, and Jim's wife, Liz, alternated sitting vigil each night since this past Tuesday.

But I sensed Verna might die some time in the middle of the night, so I decided to remain downstairs with her. I climbed onto her hospital bed and lay down beside her. She was very warm. I clasped my hand into hers and told her how much I love her, will always love her, will send all our love with her on her journey, and be enveloped by her love after she is gone.

"Verna, when you are ready to go," I said, "and join your mother in heaven, you should go. She is waiting for you."

Hospice had urged me to remind her several times during the day that I released her. I did. But I also knew that Verna, on some level, had to be aware I was her unconditional advocate because I administered alarmingly high doses of several pain medications--as prescribed by hospice--when some people wavered as she slipped into a deep, deep sleep Friday evening just before 11 pm.

I fell asleep for ten minutes next to her with our apricot-colored miniature poodle, Gigi, atop my stomach. Gigi jumped off of me onto the floor, waking me up. I looked over at Verna and stroked her hair and lightly touched her face. Gigi started to growl-moan as if to say, "OK, I took my late night pee already, aren't you going to give me my treat and put me to bed?"

So I got up and led Gigi to her kennel, where she beds each night, and carried her up to our bedroom. When I came back down, I could hear the Verna's breathing was more labored and her chest was heaving.

It was close to midnight, so I went to the kitchen to prepare her medications for the night, while the caregiver, Faye, sat by her side. As I was loading either liquid morphine, methadone, and ativan into various syringes, Faye said urgently, "Steve."

I bolted into the living room. "You didn't have to run," said Faye. Verna's chest still heaved and the gaps between each breath were a few seconds. She was very pale. I knelt down almost diagonal to her chest and knew she was about to die.

"Faye, please go upstairs to the bedroom on the right, and wake up her brother," I said.

Jim and Liz padded downstairs and minutes later Verna exhaled for the last time. We watched her chest rise and fall, rise and fall, and then stop. She was gone. I buried my head in her left arm and cried. Jim and Liz, each seated above her head, cried. Faye, who later said she was experienced with client death as a caregiver, sat quietly, a stunned look on her face.

Jim left the room to call Verna's other brother, Marty, who was resting at his hotel room with his wife, Donna, one of Verna's closest and dearest friends. He came over and sat with us. He and I held hands and cried over Verna. Marty then phoned his father, Martin, and told him Verna was gone. Then Jim and Marty drove 25 minutes into San Francisco to bring him here to honor his daughter and baby girl.

I phoned hospice and the on-call nurse, Robert, said he would arrive within 45 minutes, by 1 am. He also said he would request that the mortuary come to take Verna's body away at 3 am.

Verna's father arrived at 1:45 am and rushed to her hospital bed, wailing in disbelief. He, too, buried his head against her.

Saying goodbye isn't easy, but everyone does it differently. Since I feared Verna might die over the weekend, I phoned the parents of Miguel's best friend and asked if he could stay there on Friday and possibly Saturday night. Miguel had already told me he did not want to be home when Verna died. I said to him, "Miguel, I know how much you love Mommy and you know how much Mommy loved you. It's OK if you don't want to be home. I am happy that you are making the choices."

His friend's father lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 13.

Maya chose to engage with Verna. She climbed into her hospital bed many times to stroke her arms and hair, and say, "It's OK, Mommy, you will feel better."

I finally got to bed at 4 am and heard Maya rustling at 7. She came over and I pulled her into bed with me. "Maya," I started, "Mommy is now a star in heaven. She is with Grandma Chela," Maya's late maternal grandmother who died in 2008.

"No," she said, "You're joking."

"No, she died," I said. "But she's a star in heaven and will always be in our hearts."

"I'm going to check downstairs," she said.

But the hospital bed had already been stripped clean of its sheets and air mattress. Maya came back moments later.

"Oh, I am sad," she said. "Mommy died."

Then she climbed back into bed and said, "Poor Daddy, I will take care of you." I hugged her tightly and felt such immense love for her, for Verna, for Miguel.

"Maya, you have a playdate today with Annika after school," I said, hoping to keep her daily routine.

"I don't want to go to school," she said.

"What about your playdate with Annika?"

"I just want to go over to Annika's," she said.

I spent the day with two close friends, Amanda and Mercedes, and Verna's brothers, sisters-in-law, and Verna's father. I dropped Maya off in the parking lot of the school so she could go with Annika and her mom, who is from the Faroe Islands, which lie northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway.

After a 35 minute ride on the LifeCycle to sweat out some of my shock and anxiety, which I know cannot so easily be discarded, I showered and then drove to pick up Miguel. I was waiting for him on the sidewalk near his middle school as he strolled up eating a Ben and Jerry's bar. I put my arm around him.

"Hey, Miguel," I said, my voice wavering, tears clouding my eyes, "Mommy died early this morning just after midnight. I think she was peaceful. She just stopped breathing."
"You were there?"
"Yes," I answered.
He looked sad, but revealed no other emotion. He'd called last night and asked if he could spend a 3rd consecutive night with the Allen family. His friend's mom said he'd been much quieter during the day. I said, "Sure." His friend's parents drove over and picked up a change of clothes for Miguel.
"I put $10 in his shorts' pocket for snack," I told them.
On the ride home this afternoon I shared some of what happened with Verna leading up to and including her death. Miguel said very little. I'd given him three choices: return home for the night, return home to have dinner with family and then bed down at Casa Allen, or dash over to the Allens as soon as he finished his homework. He chose door number three.
"Can I spend the next few nights with Chris?" he asked.
"Yes." I reiterated that he could choose how he wanted to spend his after school and evening time amid this nightmare. I repeated my line about his love for Verna and hers for him. "Just make sure you communicate with me what you need."
Communicating her needs has never been Maya's problem. She played for three hours with our next door neighbors before going to Annika's house, then returned to the park with the neighbors and to their house for dinner after she got home. By the time she came trudged up the front steps after 7 pm, she was exhausted and, I knew, very sad.
After her dinner here of two cupcakes (hey, I can spoil her on this day of all days), we went outside and looked at the night sky.
"Tell me which star is Mommy," I said.
Maya pointed to a very bright one that was twinkling right above our home. "That's Mommy," I said. "And look how she's smiling down on us."
"We can go out every night and look at Mommy," Maya said.
I gazed at the shining star and said, "I love you, Verna."
"I love you, Mommy," Maya said.
Verna, our lovely mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend, may be gone, but she will never, ever be forgotten. I believed she willed herself to die at a time when Maya was fast asleep and Miguel was away and I was right beside her.
Farewell, my lovely. I am eternally yours.

1 comment:

  1. Your most beautiful entry, Steve! May her memory always be as bright as the stars and live in your hearts and souls forever. Leave it to an Atterman to provide cupcakes for Maya's dinner...glad she ate not one, but two:-) XOXO