Friday, September 18, 2009

The Lost and Found Month of August, Part 3

I had wanted to avoid traveling back home in the dark from Florida. Saul and I have done the trek by car from Philadelphia to Florida and back many times over the years beginning with the first year we were married, when we traveled with my sister, Adele, and her husband, Larry, the first year that Disney World opened. I-95 had not yet been completed for the whole State of Georgia and passing slow-moving cars on a two-lane road with oncoming tractor trailers in a pouring rain caused my sister a melt-down that gave her a dread of long car trips for many years. In one of our more recent trips, Saul and I had encountered a dreadful thunderstorm on the way home in South Carolina at night. We were so tired and so blinded by the torrential rain and lightening flashes that we pulled over at the first light in the storm and slept in the parking lot of a convenience store for two-hours before the rain let up enough for us to continue to a motel. I resisted Ari and Saul’s desire to leave in the wee hours of Tuesday morning because I did not want a repeat of that experience. I also wanted to squeeze in as much time as possible before leaving our incredible accommodations.

I thought we should take two days to make the journey considering the fact that we were traveling with two kids under 10 and a 3-month-old baby. We squeezed as much as we could out of our foreshortened vacation and decided to “play it by ear.” Ari, Jessica, Izzy and Yona traveled in the PT cruiser and Saul and I took Sami in our Honda Pilot. We stopped for a late lunch at a Shoney’s in North Carolina after our large, late breakfast. My worst fears about bad weather were realized as we began to encounter really bad storms in North Carolina as we approached the South Carolina border. While it was uncomfortable to be driving in heavy rainstorms with huge tractor trailers during daylight, the real stress came as night fell, we were very tired, and nearby lightening bolts and blinding rain persisted for hours. Although I pleaded with Ari that we should stop somewhere for the night, he was determined to finish the drive back home. I think that part of that determination was because he had not had a chance to really say goodbye to his grandmother before we left for vacation. We plodded on, passing many accidents, taking it slowly and carefully, and praying that no other drivers would do something stupid.

During the drive, we received a phone call from Adele saying that Beth’s ex-husband, Ed, had stopped in to visit Mom, having heard how badly she was doing. He told us that the air-conditioning in her area of the house was not working and that he had played with the thermostat, but that the temperature in her room was up to 80°F. We have a wonderful service person for our heating and air-conditioning. When Adele reached him at 10:00 p.m. and explained the situation, he said he would be there within the hour to fix it… and he was! He and Ed rigged up something to keep Mom’s room cool until a broken part could be procured to fix it permanently. Eventually, the heavy rain subsided, we made a short stop for gas and some food in Virginia, and continued on until we reached Ari’s condo in DC where we loaded Jessica’s and the girls things into Ari’s Mercedes and she continued with the two girls home to Baltimore. We then followed Ari as he drove the PT Cruiser to National Airport to return it. Ari took over the driving from Saul after that as we headed directly for home. His condo in DC was being staged by the realtor for an open house the following weekend and was in the throes of being painted. We were not supposed to be returning for another week. Ari and Jessica were supposed to have flown back to National Airport the following Sunday evening.

We arrived back home at about 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday and went directly in to see Mom. She was aware of our presence, as we received a half-smile, but she was no longer able to really respond verbally as all her effort was directed to her breathing. Ari joked about his kiss being scratchy because he was looking rather scruffy after not shaving for several days. After we all slept for a few hours, he shaved and went back in and received one of the last smiles she was able to muster when we joked that now she must really be glad to see him.

We slept most of Wednesday. Thursday, I spent most of the day on the computer working to meet the deadline on the publication I had begun on vacation. Thankfully, the work went smoothly. For Shabbat dinner on Friday, I invited our friends, Susan and Ted, who are Larry’s sister and brother-in-law. They live in Chicago and we have, by coincidence, missed seeing them for one reason or another the last several times that they had been in to visit. We had been due to miss them again because of our vacation. Also on Friday, Jessica drove to our house in her SUV with the girls, leaving Ari’s Mercedes in Baltimore. I believe that the last time I saw Mom smile was when Jessica placed Yona on her bed. We picked up fresh supplies at Costco, and made a reasonably easy dinner drawing on stores in our freezer of homemade chicken soup, matzoh balls, and dumplings, along with our new-found store-bought glatt kosher stuffed cabbage. Sami, Izzy and Brenna all helped to produce a newly-invented (by Sami) recipe for oatmeal, peanut-butter, banana and cherry cookies, some of which we packed away for Alex for his upcoming birthday. We rounded out the meal with salad and brown basmati rice. I went in to Mom to ask her if she wanted to join us for a few minutes, or have us light the Shabbat candles in her room. She indicated by barely shaking her head that she was not up to either. (Later, I was reminded by her hospice chaplain, Rabbi Tsurah August, that we could have had an explosion if we had lit the candles in her bedroom with the oxygen machine.) Susan asked to see Mom after dinner and I tried to discourage her, knowing how poorly Mom was feeling, but she assured me that she had been a nurse and would be able to handle the situation. She did go in to visit Mom and I could tell by her expression afterwards and her words of comfort to me that she did not feel there was much time left.

Saturday morning, Saul and I took Sami and Izzy to shul at MBI-EE. When we returned, we had lunch together with Jess and Ari. Then, Jess, Saul and I took all three girls to Beachcomber. Yona loved the water and was very calm and relaxed. Ari decided to stay home and sat with Stacey in Mom’s room and watched a movie with her while Mom slept. Later in the afternoon, he went and did some errands in the neighborhood, among them, bringing home ice cream. We ordered in pizza for dinner.

Ari and Jessica decided to return home to DC and Baltimore on Sunday. I persuaded Jessica and Alex to leave the girls with me. Alex, particularly, had strong doubts about leaving them, but they would have had great difficulty arranging for child care on short notice in the last weeks before school started. I assured them that should Mom die during the last week of Camp Bubbie and Saba, I would be very sensitive as to how to handle Mom’s death with them in the house. On the way back from Florida, I had spoken with Sami and told her that her parents were hesitating to send her back to us because G.G. might die soon. We discussed it for a while and Sami was insistent that she wanted to return to us. Also, the girls had helped me bake Haley’s wedding cake, which was waiting in Beth’s freezer, and she wanted to be present to help me decorate it before the wedding. During the week, Adele came almost every day, bringing Brenna, who had finished with camp. Each day, the girls would go into G.G.’s room and hug and kiss her before leaving for their activities. Each evening, they would go in to say goodnight. Saul took them to the “castle playground” in the mornings, and to the swim club in the afternoon. My publication finally went to the printer on Tuesday afternoon. Adele would come and sit with Mom for hours almost every day. Ken and Randi were very occupied with preparations for the wedding that week, but had come frequently during the week before while we were on vacation, as had Jamie with Presley.

On Tuesday, Mom was visited by our friend Laura, who wanted to see her one more time to say goodbye. Then, she was visited by Rabbi Tsurah, who sang to her and recited the Viddui. As Rabbi Tsurah was leaving, Rabbi Addison arrived. All were incredibly sensitive and loving and each one told her how beautifully and gracefully she was handling her ordeal. She was also visited one last time by Marianne, her wonderful volunteer, and every day by Kathy, her nurse.

On Wednesday, I was able to spend a few hours at the pool with everyone. It was my last day there this summer. Wednesday evening, we removed all the tiers of Haley’s cake from Beth’s freezer and left them out to defrost. Thursday, the girls helped me to make several batches of buttercream icing before leaving for the pool with Saul. Izzy couldn’t get enough of it once she had her first lick of the remains on the bowl and beater. Saul had gone to pick up Angela early in the morning because Stacey had known weeks before that she could not work the weekend of the wedding. We had decided to double up on Debbie and Angela’s hours because of the severity of Mom’s condition. She needed constant 24/7 care and no one person could do all that.

Until about Monday, the aides had been managing to get small quantities of juice, water, Ensure and yogurt into Mom. After Monday, she no longer could muster enough suction to get much liquid up through a straw and she began to choke frequently on even small quantities of liquid. We had stopped on our harrowing trip from Florida at Smith’s Chevron in South Carolina to pick up cases of their renowned peach cider. We found that Mom loved this juice and after Monday, the aides, Adele and I had begun frequently swabbing her lips and mouth with the peach juice instead of water. She was less likely to choke on the liquid this way and was able to suck some juice from the swab. We all knew she could not live much longer this way with no food intake and very little liquid. According to the hospice guidelines, the final instructions say that for someone “actively dying,” the dying person is actually better off not consuming food and drink at the end. The body can no longer process the food properly and the person usually no longer wants or needs it. Forcing unwanted food and drink can cause unnecessary distress.

Once the cakes were frosted, I called Beth for moral (as well as physical) support in rolling out the fondant. I had had an awful time with the fondant for Haley’s sister Jamie’s wedding cake and, although in the end it looked flawless, I was beginning to roll out the fondant with trepidation. On one of our first attempts, Beth cracked the wooden handle of my rolling pin with the pressure. Luckily, she had one of her own and retrieved it from her home next door. We began to get a feel for it as we finished each tier and thought they looked very pristine and nice as we completed each one.

We took a break and Beth went home once the tiers were completed and trimmed as Saul had returned with the girls. Adele, Saul, Sami, Izzy, Brenna and I went to dinner at nearby Franconi's Pizza that evening. Adele put the girls to bed and left with Brenna, and Saul and I began assembling the tiers inserting wooden dowels for support. Debbie arrived shortly before we finished assembling the cake so that Angela could go to sleep. All during the day I had been going in and out of Mom’s room, although by now, we all felt that she was hearing us from a distance. We had a discussion in her room about it on Monday, when her nurse, Kathy, came to visit.

When Saul and I had finished assembling the tiers, we decided to call Beth, again, for backup support. Beth is an engineer and the cake was encircled by three satin ribbons on each tier. We figured if anyone could get them straight and evenly-spaced, it would be Beth. She carefully measured the thickness of the ribbon, the height of the tiers, and calculated the distance that should be placed between them. We also discovered that it was a job for six hands in order to attach the ribbon with royal icing and hold the ends in place as the cake was being encircled with it. It took us a few hours, but it worked and looked really beautiful. During this process, Angela came in to say goodnight. When we finished the ribbon, Beth went home and I piped the bottoms of the tiers with leftover buttercream to give the cake a finished look and hide the cardboard circles on which the tiers sat. The floral part of the cake was being finished by Erik, the groom’s, father, who is a florist, with a ring of white roses on every tier. As we finished up, Debbie came in and was admiring the cake as she was preparing a tuna fish sandwich to take back with her to Mom’s room. We were discussing the cake for about ten minutes while she was preparing her sandwich when I suddenly realized that Mom was alone. I went in to sit with her while Debbie was finishing up. It was a little after 11:00 p.m.

I sat down on the closed commode lid next to Mom’s bed. I gently touched her forehead, which was warm and told her that I was there beside her and that I had finished Haley’s wedding cake and it was beautiful. Within a few seconds, I suddenly realized that her breathing sounded much easier than it had for the last week. Then, with growing alarm, I realized that perhaps I was merely listening to the sound of the oxygen tube in her nostrils. I quickly walked to her bedroom doorway where the machine stood directly outside and flipped off the switch calling Saul from the kitchen at the same time.

I walked back to her side and listened for her breathing as Saul entered the room, looked at her from the doorway, and announced with distress that she was gone. Her eyes were closed as they had been for several days. He began to cover her face with the blanket, and I would not let him because I still was not sure. She had just been warm to my touch a few seconds before. Debbie came in behind him and affirmed his assessment that Mom had died and was distressed that she had left Mom alone. We assured her that Mom had probably waited for the one moment she was alone to take her leave as we had been warned by the hospice nurses, and many other experts, that many women do not want to die in the presence of their daughters. There practically had not been another opportunity for Mom to be alone for some time.

Angela, who had just settled in for the night, joined us from across the hall and was briefly distressed that Mom had died on her watch, but seemed relieved when we indicated that we had been expecting it to happen within a short time. For a just few moments after Saul realized she had died, he became very distressed and began to cry, shocking me, because I had seen him react in even more intense situations with a “take charge” and “do-the-proper-thing” attitude. I believe I just stood beside her for the first few minutes, stroking her forehead and feeling it begin to turn cold. Saul immediately recovered his composure and called Adele on his cell phone. She said she would be coming right over. Then, he called Ken, who did not wish to see Mom this way and had told us as much previously. After that, he called hospice and was told that someone would be on their way immediately to certify her death and handle other details, and that he would arrive in about 20 minutes. Saul then called Jessica, Ari and Beth. Adele arrived, tear-stained, with Erica and Larry. Erica, despite her mother’s dire reports, had not believed that her grandmother was so close to death. She had come a few weeks earlier to wash, set, and style her grandmother’s hair. She appeared to be shocked. Beth came in right after them looking very distressed. Her birthday is August 21, and we had feared that Mom might die either on her birthday, or on Haley’s wedding day. I believe Mom chose her exact moment to exit and that she was well aware of these dates, having been a remarkable keeper of family dates all her life.

The certifying hospice nurse arrived at about 11:45 p.m., probably about a half hour after I had entered her room. He listened for a heartbeat and informed us that there was none. He called the funeral home where, years before, she had gone with Saul and prearranged and prepaid for everything. He put Saul on the phone with them to make sure that a shomer would be waiting for her when she arrived and throughout the period until she would be interred. Then, he spoke to us with compassion and kindness, asking about her final days and hours, and about her life. He began to fill out the paperwork that would become the official death certificate and, since it was about 12:15 a.m., was going to make the date of death August 21. When we explained that there was a family birthday on August 21, he certified her time of death as 11:55 p.m. on August 20. He left after making sure that all was in order and that we were all okay. The girls had been asleep for several hours in the next room and, although they are heavy sleepers, we had closed their bedroom door while everyone was coming and going. They did not stir at all.

I told Adele that I would wait with Mom for the funeral directors, and oversee the removal of her body, something that Adele did not want to see. I sat in Mom’s desk chair in her bedroom for most of the couple of hours taken by the whole process, becoming tearful at times, but also feeling a sense of relief that the ordeal was finally over, that she was peaceful, and was able to die in her own bedroom surrounded by those who loved her, as she had wished. Briefly, I wondered about how my end would come and those of my other loved ones.

When the two men came to retrieve her body, we closed her bedroom door and left Debbie to guard the girls’ closed door to make sure we did not disturb them. They removed Mom’s blankets and, with my permission, wrapped her in the white jersey sheets on which she had been laying that I had recently purchased for the hospital bed into which we had moved her once she could no longer get herself onto the commode. As Saul had arranged, they wheeled in a gurney through the outside door that leads from her bedroom onto our deck, efficiently lifted her with the sheets onto the gurney that was topped with an opened plastic body bag and zipped her in. Although the whole process only took a few moments, it was quite a stark and disturbing thing to watch. I felt obligated, as part of the whole shomer process, to make sure that her body was treated with respect, and it was. The men offered their condolences, wished us goodnight, and disappeared across the deck into the night.

Saying that I felt at a loss when they closed the door behind them is an understatement. I was relieved when a discussion began to take place about whether Angela should stay over. Debbie offered to drive her home, but was notorious at getting lost. I could tell that Angela preferred to go home as we were all wide awake, but was fearful of Debbie getting lost. Adele, Larry, and Erica were anxious to get home as well. Saul offered to drive Angela home and I asked Debbie if she would stay for a while with the girls so that everyone could go back to bed and I could accompany Saul and Angela. That way, Saul would have company and we could talk on the way back. Debbie stayed for the extra hour and a half until we returned and, by then, I finally felt ready to sleep.

In the morning, we left G.G.’s door closed and the girls assumed that she was sleeping and did not ask any unusual questions while we ate breakfast. We preferred to wait for Jessica and Ari to arrive so that their mother could discuss G.G.’s death and the upcoming funeral and shiva period that would be taking place on the Monday morning after Haley’s wedding on Saturday night. Saul took the girls after breakfast to the playground for a few hours and then they climbed into our bed to watch a movie while we waited for our kids to arrive. While they were gone, I busied myself with straightening up the house in anticipation of the crowds of friends who would be arriving after the funeral and during the shiva period of seven days. Alex’s parents, Maury and Elaine, had invited us for Shabbat dinner that Friday. They had been scheduled to babysit for the girls during Haley’s wedding, which was adults only. Jessica told the girls that G.G. had died the previous night. Before they had a chance to ask, she explained that G.G. would be bathed, wrapped in a soft, clean, white material, like favorite pajamas, and laid in a special box. Izzy asked if the box had a lock on it and Jessica responded that it did not. Then she described that the family would be burying the box at the cemetery so that G.G. Evelyn could be next to G.G. Phil, who was her beloved husband, and her parents, and that we would say nice things about G.G. and the wonderful things we remembered about her. Afterward, everyone would be coming back to the house to have a meal, like a party, but not a festive party, and that lots of people would be visiting all week to talk about how much they loved G.G. and we would say prayers for her. They accepted this explanation without asking many more questions and Izzy went back about her business while Sami appeared to be more pensive and melancholy.

Alex’s parents prepared a wonderful and delicious Shabbat dinner for us, as they always do, and we were able to drive back home just in time to avoid a teeming thunderstorm.

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