Thursday, August 29, 2013

To Remember...Always

Sometimes I can only remember what Verna looked like from an image of an actual photograph, not from a picture in my head. That happened fairly soon after she died. I remember our wedding day, for example, but the images that float in my mind are from our photo albums or framed photographs on the walls of our home.

Tomorrow is the 3rd anniversary of her death. I hearken back to that day and the images are both clear and fuzzy, like fiddling with a binocular or camera to bring an image into focus. Hospice provided special assistance during Verna’s final days, and someone came over at least every other day to bathe her. They asked me to dress her in old t-shirts, ones they could actually cut off her body and disturb her as little as possible. She still had ones that were from her early twenties, which had been more than 20 years earlier.

I can see the t-shirts, one from El Salvador in the early 80s when the right-wing government assaulted civilians almost daily, and it said, “Yo soy periodista,” which means “I am a journalist,” and it showed someone fleeing the marauding tanks of El Salvador’s army and death squads (partly financed by the United States), proclaiming their innocence. But I can’t see Verna’s face. I remember what she looked like, but only from the photographs we took during those last days, one of her face, puffy from steroids and water retention, cuddled on her hospital bed against Maya.

I remember that after she died one or two people suggested I gave her too much pain medication, kept her foggy on purpose so she was unable to communicate lucidly (or at all) with family and friends. I found some Hospice documents earlier this year while cleaning out the electric recliner chair in our living room before we gave it to my sister-in-law’s aunt during the last months of her life. The documents vindicated me and showed how our Hospice nurse had ordered rapidly increasing amounts of medication—Ativan and morphine. At one point the nurse, Lacey, said to me, “I can’t believe she is able to handle so much medication.”

I remember that I was sometimes impatient when I squeezed drops of pain medication into Verna’s mouth, against her cheek, causing her to choke and cough on the liquid. I can actually see Verna, still, in my mind, her hair matted against the pillow (green cover), as her body went into spasms if I rushed the medication in too quickly.

On Friday evening, August 27, 2010, I remember I gave her medication from a syringe and she had close to a 30-minute coughing fit. My brother-in-law, Jim, and his wife, Liz, were with me. Verna’s body thrust forward with every cough, her eyes squeezed shut in almost agony. She finally calmed down and went to sleep for the night.

She never woke up.

On Saturday afternoon, the hospice nurse said she was in a deep sleep, not a coma. I continued to give her medication orally four times a day and twice as a suppository. I remember the exact moment before Verna died when her breathing became labored as her chest rose and fell, and the amount of time between each breath grew longer and longer. And then she stopped.

I wasn’t sure where this remembrance was going when I started. I also remember one of my favorite photographs of Verna and me, taken in 1990. We are standing in the kitchen of the four-bedroom flat I shared with roommates on 19th Avenue in San Francisco, where a constant flow of traffic always rumbled by on one of the city’s major arteries. My left arm is around her shoulder, and I am wearing a white dress shirt with thin blue and red vertical stripes and navy blue pants. Verna has on a black dress with a buttoned v-front. It is August or September, and her normally olive, half-Hispanic skin was even more golden brown after a summer outdoors as a day camp counselor for young teens (which is how we met). The smiles across our faces are wide and bright. We clearly looked as if we belonged together.

Tomorrow I will go to the cemetery with my good friend Amanda, and maybe her daughter, and tidy up the gravestone area and then replace the old artificial flowers with new ones we picked out yesterday. We will go there, to remember. Always.