Jan’s purple flowered gown has fallen open. I see scars on her breast and the chemo port. Her eyes are open, her breathing shallow. She smiles her twinkly smile. This is Friday, and Jan’s first day in Heartland Hospice.
Heartland Hospice is familiar territory to me. I spent many hours here in grief counseling and art therapy after my sister’s horrible painful death. Grateful for their help, I volunteered for a couple of years. But being so near the dying and the grieving frightened me, reminded me of my own mortality.
Today is my first time back in Heartland Hospice in six years. Jan’s family is here—her wife Anne, her brother Raymond, and her daughter Shanique. I hug each one. Anne points out the wide French doors that open to a porch perched over the woods. “Wide enough,” she says, “for Jan’s bed to be let through.”
Jan and I have been “gal-pals” for thirty years. We love each other. We’ve spent hours together talking about her pain, fatigue and, social withdrawal. I have praised her multiple successes—a good marriage, a lovely daughter, research, and grateful students. We have talked about cats and dogs, music and theater, art and children, embodiedness and spirituality. But we had never talked about her dying.
Except once. A fortnight ago. At “our” café. “Dr. B. says I would have three months to live if I went off the chemo,” Jan whispered, shaking her head. “That’s not long enough.”
Now, a week later, here she is and here I am in Heartland Hospice, Room 25. I hold Jan’s right hand and say, “This is the next journey we’re going on, Jan.”
“Next journey,” repeats her daughter, Shanique.
“Next journey,” says her wife Anne.
I pause. Adjust Jan’s gown.
“We’ve been on many journeys together, “I say.
“Many journeys,” say Shanique and Anne, holding hands.
“Many journeys,” whispers brother Raymond.
“Yessss,” Jan whispers.
I pause. Pluck a loose hair off Jan’s forehead.
“Our next journey is a mystery,” I say.
“And we love mysteries, don’t we, Jan?” I say.
“Someday, I will join you,” I say.
“…join you,” her family whisper.
Shanique puts her head down on her mother’s breast. Anne smoothes her wife’s blanket. Raymond pats his sister’s head.
I am neither able to say “good-bye” to Jan nor can I speak the “how-much-I-love-you-words” that grief therapists recommend. Those words are too final. But holding Jan’s hand, petting her arm, and fixing her gown—physical actions give me the words I need not only to be true to myself but to comfort the family with “call and response,” a prayer form soothing to this family.
Saturday noon and we take turns at Jan’s bedside, patting her, kissing her, humming lullabies. A laptop plays ocean waves. Shanique is frozen by her mother’s bedside.
Across the room, Anne and I are sitting on the couch. On the side table is a St. Francis, carved and painted. His gown is crimson, a blue bird sits on his shoulder, and a spotted dog at his feet. “Was this here when you came?” I ask pointing to St. Francis.
“Nah. I brought it from home,” Anne says. “Jan found it at a yard sale.”
I suppress my desire to grab St. Francis, I want him but I can’t be asking Anne for something of Jan’s before she has even died. And I can’t be asking for something that Anne valued so much she brought it here.
What is wrong with me? Do I want it because it belonged to Jan? Because she rescued it from a yard-sale? Because I love folk-art ? Or because I want a companion for my St. Francis. It’s glass, Lalique. My sister gave it to my brother when she died, and he gave it to me when he died, saying “He reminds me of the kindfulness of our sister.” Maybe I need two St. Francis’s—one for each of my sons. Maybe I need…
“Excuse me,” Anne says, checking her phone. She goes into the hallway. I struggle to and succeed in keeping my hands off St. Francis.
Returning, Anne explains, “That was the funeral director…I told him that Shanique wants her mom to be cremated…Shanique wants to push the button that starts the fire…She wants the ashes in a bio-degradable container…She wants us to spread her mom’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean…She wants a memorial service later…”
“It’s so stuffy in here,” Raymond says, opening the French doors.
I glance at the porch and the woods. So inviting…
It is over so fast!
A whirlwind of gossamer, sheer and shiny.
My Jan is gone, now.
Jan’s death is the first I have consciously witnessed. How can that be? I am in my eighties.
“A fly just came in here,” Raymond says.
“I heard it buzzing,” I say.
And now there is stillness in the air.
Jan’s face looks like putty. A nurse puts her stethoscope on Jan’s heart and nods. Jan has died. Shanique burrows her head under her mother’s coverlet, and keens.
“I have to go,” Shanique shouts. She takes her phone out of her purse and runs out of the room.
“It’s okay,” Anne, her “other” mother says. “She just needs to be alone.”
I kiss my index finger and touch Jan’s cheek. She feels like putty. Jan’s family is here. I am a friend. I should leave but I don’t.
Anne’s phone rings on speaker. We hear Shanique shrieking in pain.
“Honey…what’s the matter? Honey?”
“I’m impaled,” Shanique screams.
“Where are you, Honey?” Anne’s putting on her sandals.
“I can’t move…”
“Don’t let anything happen to her!” Anne shouts, looking toward the ceiling.
“Do you know where you are, Honey?” Anne is quaking.
“Phone’s GPS,” Raymond says. “Security will find her.”
Anne, Raymond and I rush into the corridor.
“Did you see a young woman run out of here?” I ask a nurse. She nods and points to a door labeled, “Emergency Exit Only.” I yank the door open. A bell goes off —Rrrrr—and the door slams shut. Nothing looks familiar. I don’t know where I am. I step onto a blacktop, edged with red containers: “Danger: Medical Waste.” Up ahead is a steep grassy bank, wet. Rrrr…Rrrrr. The warning bell won’t shut up.
I try hiking up the slippery bank but slip back onto the blacktop. I try again, crab-style, angled and finally reach a muddy patch of gravel and see beyond it a paved path. To the right, construction vehicles and metal fences feel ominous. I am about to cry from helplessness, when I remember what my Aunt Ceil, a Kabbalist, told me: the Soul hangs around for three days after it leaves its body, checking on how the bereaved loved ones are doing.
“Oh Jan,” I cry out skyward, “Help! Help me! Help us!”
I turn left and run to the bleating cry. Anne is sprawled on her back in mud and gravel. Her right knee is oddly cocked. Her face is a bloody mess.
“Have they found Shanique?” she whispers.
“Not yet,” I say “but I’m calling the squad for you.”
Sirens join the warning bell.
I follow the sirens and see EMTs run into the woods. There I see Shanique’s thigh impaled by a loose cable. She is screaming. “Why is this happening?” she wails. An EMT takes an enormous set of pincers and cuts her free. A rusty cable fragment still pierces her leg. She is carried out of the woods and lifted into an ambulance. More piercing screams. More sirens, more Rrrr…Rrrrr.
I run back to Anne and tell her that Shanique is on her way to the ER, Anne whispers, “Thank goodness.”
Four EMTs lift Anne onto a stretcher and carry her to a waiting ambulance.
I find my way back to the front entrance of Heartland Hospice and to Room 25.
Blessed stillness still here.
Jan’s body here, too, soft looking, jaw relaxed, eyes closed. Her body will be here for at least six more hours per the Hospice’s kindness policy, time enough and plenty for Anne and Shanique to return from the ER and say their special good-byes.
“Oh, Jan,” I say, “Thank you. I think you engineered it all. With both Shanique and Anne needing to be rescued without you here to do the rescuing they have learned that they will be taken care of by others. And, they have learned they are still here, taking care of each other. As for me, Jan, I stayed, fulfilled my part, and got to see it all play out.”
6 thoughts on “Jan’s Death”
How life howls at you when you sit with death. My mother was 47 – my baby twin boys crawled over her, pulled her hair, grumped and laughed. Then howled because it was their bedtime. While I was putting them to bed she left, but never really left. When saying goodbye to her body the twins demanded to be fed, demanded to be given attention. Later, when the family was gathered in sorrow in the front room, the twins crawled into the pantry spreading all the contents over the kitchen floor , then brought the pots down in a might crash – I remember we all just stood there looking at the chaos then burst out laughing. Let life howl.
We do kind of live with the idea that “life is messy” but you are reminding us that “death can be messy, too.” Thanks for your story-comment.
Thanks Laurel. Powerful story. and most importantly, so sorry for your loss, and so glad you could be there. Love carolyn
This is a terrific piece, Laurel. You capture everyone’s feelings around Jan’s dying. Loss is not easy to navigate.
This is high praise, and most appreciated coming from Raechel Bratnick author of The Likelihood of Dawn: An Intimate Journey Within and Beyond .Grief. She is a very wise woman.