We were ready to go to bed after a long day of shopping on Sunday to prepare Andrew for college. Last load of laundry was in the dryer as we were getting ready to go upstairs when the lights went out.
It was a little past midnight so I guess, it was, technically Monday morning. The Hubby was cursing something harsh under his breath, and Emily was complaining, “It’s not even raining that hard and I don’t even hear the wind.” Andrew looked for flash lights but we were ready to quit for the day. But we couldn’t stop thinking about how we survived not just one, but two blackout this past winter. Remember when we had to take Jean to a hotel in one of the black outs? I shuddered to think that this one would last that long again and thought about Jean, in her house with her niece and the night time nurse, in the dark. I hoped that they’d be asleep.
Then, as if he read my mind, the Hubby said, “What would happen to Jean’s oxygen machine with no electricity?” I stopped to answer, with an uneasy feeling, “They will have to use the back up oxygen tanks.” Then, he asked, “Would they know how to use it and do they have a flashlight?” Again, I hesitated with an answer, “They should….I mean, there is a nurse there.” Then, with those words still trailing behind me, I bolted down the stairs, while hearing Andrew shout, “Mom, I see a light in her house! They must have a flashlight.” But still, I wanted to make sure they were alright. So, I took out lanterns and flashlights and the Hubby changed the batteries to new ones, just in case.
When I stepped outside, everything was pitch black except for a faint light swinging, side to side, from Jean’s front door. All was quiet except for the little ‘pitter patter’ sounds of gentle rain coming down. No wind. Just a little rain. When I walked across the street, the nurse was holding her cell phone, waving in the air with Fran, Jean’s niece, behind her, still in her pajamas. They looked worried and a little frantic. I walked past them, barely saying, ‘Hi’ and asked, “Did you change the oxygen machine to the back up tank?” “The nurse said, ‘no’” and all they said was, “OMG. We are so glad you are here. We don’t know where the flashlights are and was hoping someone would notice us waving the phone!! Thank you for coming.” I felt bad but I was in triage mode. I put down the lanterns and used the flashlight to unplug the tube from the machine and started to hook it to the back up tank.
And that’s when I saw her face. Jean was lying on the bed with her face turned towards the room, and as I was frantically trying to put the tubing into the tank’s nozzle, I saw that her face was ashen and her lips were blue. I stopped what I was doing and as I straightened up, Fran exclaimed, “She is not breathing!!!” I leaned over Jean with Fran to see if she was breathing. I tried to feel for a pulse on her neck and felt for air movement under her nose. Nothing. Then, she startled me when all of a sudden, she took a short breath. I was so relieved. Then, her breathing stopped again. I held my own breath to see what would happen – to see if her long labored breathing would return. But she exhaled her final, long, emptying out her lung type of breath for the last time and she was gone. Just like that. I felt her cold icy hands, warm face, and soft hair. Her frail bony features looked so peaceful. Tears glistened on the corners of her eyes. Surprisingly, I wasn’t scared. I just felt empty and yet, my chest tightened with the thought that she was gone, so soon. She said the doctors told her she won’t see Christmas but not this fast! I saw that she was failing last two days but it’s only been two weeks since she came home from the hospital. I knew this was better for her but it seemed too soon. Fran said her good bye and kissed her forehead. I kissed her icy bony hand as I said my last good bye too. Then, I went home to tell my family that Jean had passed and that I will be helping Fran through the night so not to wait up for me. The kids were somber and my-always-thinking-hubby asked is we should call 911. I said we have to call the Hospice Care agency that took care of her and let them handle everything. And I ran back to Jean’s house.
The rest of the night was spent on logistics of taking care of the deceased, including having the hospice nurse-on-call to pronounce her and sign her death certificate, and having the funeral home come and pick her up. But in between, I thought about all the things Jean wanted and got while she was still lucid. She wanted Haggen Daz strawberry ice cream one day so I bought it for her and we shared a bowl together. I once walked in with my mineral water bottle and she asked me if that is better than the tap water. I said, “no, filtered tap water is.” She said, she doesn’t filter her water so she asked me if I’d buy a bottle of Poland Spring Pod – the little water bottles that are shaped like a ball – for her to drink. I bought her a pack and she was so happy to drink “clean water,” she said. (I later met Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish at a Green Soiree in NYC and chatted with her about Jean and how I thought of Beth when I was buying the plastic water bottles for a dying lady. She chuckled and said, “Don’t be silly.”) She was having a hard time eating but one of the things she wanted was a baked potato. The first home health aide made an uneasy comment that she didn’t know how to bake one. Emily was flabbergasted and decided that she’ll bake it for Jean. So last Thursday, she had Emily’s baked potato, not cut up or mushed, but just topped with butter, salt & pepper – just the way she liked it. She even put the butter on it herself. She had three spoonfuls of it and that was the last solid food she had. She wanted to listen to ‘Ave Maria’ and I didn’t know if she even had a CD player. So I brought my iPhone next to her ear last Friday, and played Pavarotti’s rendition of ‘Ave Maria’ from Youtube. She smiled, sighed, ‘Ahhh…’, and listened for about half of the song and said, that was enough. Pavarotti was one of her favorite singers of all time and yet, when I asked her if she knew who that was, she didn’t recognize the singer. I knew she was slipping away. She had labored breathing by Saturday and didn’t open her eyes. I frequently saw tears on the corner of her eyes and was sleeping most of the day when I stopped in to see her.
It turns out she has a niece and two nephews. I never met them as Jean rarely invited them over as she didn’t want to bother them or make them go out of their way to visit her. She did not want to impose or depend on them. They did come up the second time we had the black out this past winter and hooked up a generator for Jean although the power came back on an hour after that. Fran came up to be by her side as soon as she was told of her condition and stayed for four days and nights. Then, her husband, Dennis, came up to stay until this past Friday when Fran came back up again after working for a few days last week. She is a strong woman but she needed support as there are so many details to take care of when facing the inevitable. She cared for Jean as best as she could, with a help of a home health aide and a night nurse in the last few days. I stopped by every day, to talk to Jean as sometimes she’d wait for me to come by to tell her how things are with the kids but she was starting to complain of pain and was agitated often and commanded unrecognizable demands, verbally and with hand gestures.
I wrote about what you would do if you had less than five months to live when I first found out about Jean’s demise but when you are robbed of the even the little time you thought you had, it is even more maddening. In preparing for her eventuality, we found her will, in her impossibly immaculate office, in a thin red binder, labeled, “When I die”. It was as if she knew this was going to happen soon. But her will was drafted last year when she was healthy. Everything was spelled out, from the songs she wanted sung, to the restaurant where she wanted her guests to eat – her favorite restaurant in town. We were nothing short of in ‘awe’ of her preparedness and her sense of mortality.
So, even thought she looked like she was beginning to prepare for her final months when we saw her at the hospital, she was already done with her planning long time ago. And what’s more remarkable, she lived her life the way she wanted – well, except for ‘not’ being around people because like I said, I think she really wanted to be around people deep inside – and she died the way she wanted.
When the funeral home took her away three hours after she passed, Fran and I sat in the kitchen, dazed, repeating to ourselves the usual statements of rationalization after someone dies, that this is better for her and that she’s in a better place now with no pain and suffering, the lights came back on. It was as if Jean turned off the lights to get me to come to her house to say good bye, to slip away in the dark, undetected, and then, turned the lights back on to say, ‘go on with your lives now.’ When I told Fran what I thought, we both shivered with goosebumps on our arms.
But then, we smiled, and said,
“That’s Jean. She did it her way ’til the end.”
We are so lucky to have met her and only hope that we can be as half as sharp and sassy as her.
We will miss you Jean. You will be in our hearts forever. Halloween will never be the same without your Hershey Chocolate bars.
And Jean, will you stop turning off the lights now? It’s getting kinda old.
And now the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I have lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way
(I was going to recite Psalm 23 here but I thought the lines from “My Way” was just as fitting because I couldn’t help to think of Jean’s life as being lived in any other way than ‘her’ way…and even in death.)