Her passing was peaceful.
I was out-of-town for a week and got back in time for the QO spring BBQ picnic last Thursday, May 14. The food was good, but I was surprised how much difficulty she was having. I’d put meat on her fork, but she couldn’t get it to her mouth. Then she would chew and chew and chew, as if she didn’t know what to do with it–spit it out or swallow. That was so much trouble that I tried taking small slices of ham and cheese out of a biscuit, rolling them up, and letting her eating it that way with her fingers. Taking tiny bites, she took ten minutes to finish probably a tablespoon of food. Same with a chocolate chip cookie. She couldn’t seem to find her mouth.
She didn’t say anything, and struggled to follow my prompting. I didn’t think to tell her to swallow. She did drink a lot of iced tea through a straw, and wanted to help hold the glass.
I asked her several times if she knew who I was and other simple questions that could be answered with one word. She was silent.
They had a band playing outside, so I wheeled her out on the patio and we sat and listened. It was a lovely evening, and I noticed her tapping her foot in time to the music. Really in time to the music!
She complained that her belly hurt, and when I rubbed the spot she indicated, her abdomen felt hard as a rock. I asked the nurse if she had been constipated, but that wasn’t the problem. I have suspected for some time that she had breast cancer and thought it may well have metastasized. At her age, she was not a candidate for surgery.
I’d been there almost two hours, so when the band took a break I told her it was over and time for bed. Wheeled her inside, kissed her forehead and said, as usual, “I’ll see you in a few days.”
“Do you have to go so soon?” she whispered.
It was the last thing she said to me.
The day before yesterday, Tuesday May 19, I got a call at 8 a.m. She complained at breakfast that she didn’t feel well and didn’t want anything to eat. The nurse tried to give her a spoonful of milk, but it dribbled out of her mouth, so she thought it best to stop and avoid asphyxiation.
They put her down for a nap and she quickly became unresponsive. Over the next two days her breathing became more and more shallow and her blood oxygen level, even with the oxygen concentrator going, kept dropping. Her temperature would spike to 102, then drop to slightly below normal. However, this lady who was diagnosed with congestive heart failure 20 years or so ago maintained an “acceptable” blood pressure until almost the very end.
Tuesday night they moved her to their “dying room.” I spent the night with her on a cot. Yes, they came in every two hours to tend to her and I got no sleep, but I did see how tenderly she was being cared for. They kept her dry, gave her under-the-tongue Tylenol to reduce her fever and small amounts of a morphine derivative when she exhibited restlessness.
Yesterday morning they even gave her a bed bath.
In the afternoon I arranged a brief, impromptu “Last Rites” service with the priest from our Episcopal church, my friend Helen, who has sung with me a couple of times at her birthday celebrations, and our old friend, Al, who has visited her faithfully over the years. I also invited any of the staff what would like to come. Six of them showed up.
We started with Helen and me singing “Daisy, Daisy,” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” the two songs she had regaled the staff with so many times. Then we all sang “Amazing Grace.”
Al read some beautiful Celtic “circle prayers” that were very inclusive. Helen and I read a psalm responsively. Then Beth (our rector) read the prayers for the dying and anointed her with chrism.
We all participated in the Eucharist, said the Lord’s Prayer, and I bent over and sang her a lullaby. We were all close to tears. It was a beautiful send off.
I sat with her until nearly dark, then drove home to get some sleep. Workers were coming at 9 a.m. and I had to be here to get them started.
I called at 9:20 a.m. to see how she was. The nurse said she thought the end was very near. I left immediately and got there in half an hour.
She died at 9:26 a.m. this morning.
I sat with her until noon. It has been my limited experience that though the body may be dead, the person “hovers” for a while. I definitely felt her presence in the room.
After about an hour I felt a strange warmth–hard to explain, just a pleasant, hugging sensation. It may sound strange, but I knew at that moment her mother had come for her. I never knew my grandmother–she died before I was born. I’ve seldom even thought of her. But I could not be more certain that at that moment, Ruth had come to take Esther home. I found myself smiling, mentally waving good-bye, knowing that my mother was being carried off by the one person she most longed for.
My mother was a woman of great faith. I know where she was being taken.
Rest in peace, dear one. I will miss you terribly.