Unfortunately, the world outside our little Hospice bubble continued to spin, and as hard as it was to think about leaving, it just didn't make sense anymore for all three of us to be there at the same time. Mom's 'rally' seemed to be holding, and having no way of knowing how long it would last, we decided it was time to start rotating.
Planning for the unplannable can be a bit tricky, but luckily we had already decided months before to be in Ohio for Mom's 89th birthday, which was the following week. Agreeing to stick with that plan, come what may, Sal and I opted to just stay through, rather than deal with the hassle of airline changes.
(Although, quick side note here because Delta, I discovered, offers a fare for circumstances like these. It costs a little more, but you can change it as often as necessary without paying any penalties. And believe me, I had to make a lot of changes in the weeks to come, so I was very grateful!)
Lib, on the other hand, had to get home for an important doctor's appointment with Henry that weekend, so she went ahead and made plans to leave the next day.
God, and I thought it was hard to leave the bubble for a phone call! Watching Lib say goodbye to Mom the following morning frightened me to my core. How could it be possible that they might never see each other again?
The image of the two of them together, Lib sitting on the side of the bed, holding Mom’s hand, leaning in as close as she could as they smiled their goodbyes, both of them being so brave, is seared into my memory.
And even though it turned out that they would see each other again, that moment made me realize that though I might not be scared about what would happen to Mom spiritually when she died, I was pretty terrified of what would happen to her physical body.
In fact, being in that Hospice facility I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to all the bodies that came and went. Did they go out in body bags on stretchers? Did they wait until night time to take them away so as not to upset the grieving families? Or, even worse, the patients?
I couldn’t imagine my mother’s dead body being zipped into a body bag, strapped to a stretcher and then rolled down the corridor. It seemed impossible.
And then, if I thought too much about her actual body - her crooked hands, her gnarled feet, her beautiful white hair - all being fed into a crematorium oven, a wave of panic would flutter in my chest and I’d have to remind myself that Mom, the real Mom, was going to be alright.
Because what’s true, at least in my experience, is that when you actually see a dead body it becomes very clear that without the energy of the soul infusing it with life, it really is just an empty shell.
When my dad died, I didn't go to the funeral home with Sal and Lib to see him. They tried to talk me into it, telling me I might regret not going someday, but I was honestly just too scared. The idea of seeing my father's dead body, cold and lifeless on a table, in a morgue, was beyond paralyzing. I couldn't do it.
So the first time I saw the dead body of someone I loved, it wasn't actually a person. It was our dog, Nitro, who died a couple of years after my dad.
The vet, who had come out to the waiting room to break the news, asked if I’d like a moment alone with him. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I really did, but I didn't want to seem callous, so I followed him uneasily into the examining room.
The door swung closed behind me, and there on a stark, metal table lay our beautiful, dead dog.
"Oh, Nitro," I whispered, laying my hand on his big, black head.
But what I noticed, as I stood there stroking him one last time, was that Nitro wasn't there. At least the part of him that made him, him, wasn't there.
I was standing there patting what felt like an empty vessel, one that happened to be in the shape of a big, black labrador retriever.
Well this is silly, I thought to myself, this isn’t Nitro. I patted his head one more time and turned away, confident that I wasn't leaving my beloved dog behind. I wasn't quite sure where he was, but I was very sure he wasn't there on that examining table anymore.
Nitro’s physical absence in the days that followed was palpable, though, and it took quite some time for the hole he left to fill back up. I hadn’t realized until he wasn’t there, how much he had been there. Right behind me, following my every move, no matter where I was going. The bathroom, the basement, the laundry, the car.
The lack of Nitro’s physical presence was much louder than his actual presence had ever been.
And it's losing that physicalness of someone you love that's the hardest. The voice on the other end of the phone, the kiss goodnight, the hug at the end of a long day. All those things that make our unique ‘sparks of energy’ tangible in this physical dimension disappear when someone dies, and it takes an awfully long time for the world to shift around and fill in that empty space they leave behind.
Anyway, as chance would have it, a couple of nights after Lib left I was walking down the Hospice corridor to check on Mom one last time before heading back to her apartment. Everything was quiet, and no one was in sight, when suddenly, at the end of the hall, I saw a stretcher being pulled from the room next to Mom’s.
Oh no, I thought, as I watched the solemn procession head down the hall toward me. Mr. D must have died. Oh my god...that’s him. That’s him in the bag. Oh my god.
My heart thudding in my chest, I stepped to the side to allow them to pass, trying hard not to stare, but unable to tear my eyes away. The body bag, dark and stiff, was fastened neatly to the stretcher, all the straps and corners tucked carefully into place. There were three attendants, one in the front and two in the back, all dressed, as you might imagine, in black, and all intently focused on the task at hand.
They passed by me as though I wasn’t there, the soft swoosh of the stretcher’s wheels the only sound in the hush of the empty hall, and I watched until they disappeared around the corner.
A random coincidence that I happened to be walking down the hall just then, or another gift from the universe to ease my fears? All I know for sure is that seeing the dignity and respect given to Mr. D that night, by three strangers who didn’t know him or his family, reassured me beyond words.
Mom would be okay.
*Note to Reader: This is a story in progress, so I am sharing it as I write it, as a way to spur me on. If you're interested in following along, here is the link to the others I've written so far. Thanks!