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.