I was back in the hospital room, waiting with the rest of the family. Melissa’s husband, Terry, had come to be supportive and they had run out for dinner and come back. I imagined that Melissa was loathe to leave because she was being told that it would be any time now. She had gone by my dad’s house during that time to find the dress Susan wanted to be buried in as well as pick up a few of her bibles and devotionals. David was going through the book reading scriptures she had underlined and quotes she had written in the margin. The one that stuck with me that he also used later was, “Two thirds of God is Go.” Can I get an Amen?
A hospice nurses came in and checked Susan’s feet. Her blood was barely reaching her legs and the color collecting at the bedside showed her kidneys were failing. Her blood pressure was low and her breathing was still laborious. Everything was failing. The question was asked, “How much longer?”
The nurse responded with another question, “How long has she been breathing like that?” then she lowered her voice to a hushed tone. “You know she can hear us.”
It’s what they tell you when someone has slipped away and is beginning their trek toward the other side. I don’t know how they know what can and can’t be heard. I began to wonder about the kinds of studies that might have been involved to come to that conclusion. Or perhaps it was a hospice nurse that began the saying to prevent family from bickering in front of the soon to be deceased. Death can often bring out the best and the worst in people.
The answer that came in a quiet voice was that it could be minutes or hours. If she had been breathing like that since the morning, she could still hang on for an indeterminate amount of time. It was a strange thing for me to transition from the hopes of Susan hanging on as long as she could to thoughts of her passing as a mercy. Looking at her in that hospital bed, I could see a window into the suffering that she had and was currently enduring even while unconscious and unresponsive.
We passed the time talking to each other while David would find particularly interesting pieces of passage that Susan had underlined. It was a comfort to me to hear her words and feel her there with us even if her physical voice could no longer utter them. It made me think of all the journals that I have written in and I wondered if sometime in the future I would find someone poring over them translating or trying to understand some of the things I had written in cursive.
Soon, Billie and David had to get going. David made the comment that he had to work tomorrow. I’m sure I had a wry smile at that. I suppose that’s what happens when you sign up to guide an entire congregation at church. Sundays are never your own again. Before they left, David wanted to say a prayer and give a benediction. A blessing.
I admit at that point things were hazy for me. I was struggling not to cry outright, although in hindsight I don’t know why I felt the need to suppress my tears. David asked that we each say at least one thing we were thankful for Susan bringing into our life. I know I said that I was grateful for receiving unconditional love from her.
I couldn’t elaborate past the lump in my throat. She had no obligation to love me. I’d received cold indifference and sometimes disdain from my dad’s second wife. Susan loved me and all of my siblings as if she had brought us into the world herself. There was no true distinction between “yours and mine” with her and my father. She just knew family and welcomed anyone in that wanted to belong to her family.
I wish I remembered what everyone there said word for word but it got lost in the feelings. I just knew the feeling of being united for Susan. By that time in the evening I was praying for her peace and her release.
I understood why my dad didn’t want to sit in the room. It was draining in its own way, pulling and tugging at any energy I had. It broke down the barriers I had for denial and in some ways I was confronted with myself. There was no resistance or pretense. There was only this moment and the next, sometimes counting the seconds between breaths.
Susan’s youngest son, Brandon, was a lot like my father. He had come to see her but he couldn’t just sit and wait in the room with her looking at the raw truth of it. Melissa said that he had come and put his favorite picture of the two of them next to her on the bed and also placed a bracelet on her wrist that said, “Angel.” He told everyone there that he was giving it to her so that heaven knew exactly what they were dealing with when she got there. I smiled when I heard the story because I also thought back to the photograph of Susan unconscious and giving everyone in the room the bird.
Matt came in later in the evening. We spoke a little bit about my road trip and he talked about some of his recent travels to work. All of us had a lot of conversation to pass the time and before I knew it, the clock was showing it was a quarter after ten. I knew that if I didn’t get home soon my dad would start to worry. He ended up calling Melissa’s phone. He was telling her that she was the only one that picked up the phone. I looked at my cell and there were no messages or phone calls. Then he started telling her how I had come all the way from Seattle and that I was a good old girl. Melissa nodded, trying to appease my obviously drunk father on the phone. “Yes, she sure is a good old girl.” Matt and I started laughing about the phrase. Maybe the atmosphere in the room was getting to me but I found that statement way funnier than it ought to have been.
Melissa handed me her phone so my dad could talk to me. He was concerned about my dogs. He wanted to make sure they were ok. He had taken them out of their crate and made sure they had gone outside. “You don’t have to worry about them at all,” he told me. “Your little babies are all taken care of.” If I read in between the lines I might have seen that he was telling me that I was there late and that maybe it was he that needed and wanted to be taken care of.
“Thanks for doing that, dad. I know they’re in good hands. I’m sure they appreciated it. I’m probably going to be heading home soon.”
“I love you girl.”
“I love you too dad.”
After that conversation with him there was a palpable shift of energy in the room. I wasn’t the only one that had gone silent and was looking at Susan. She had begun to move her mouth. With each exhale, she clacked her jaw shut. Matt, Melissa, Terry and I all got up and moved to her bedside. It was coming.
Matt touched her shoulder, and I touched her foot. Melissa stood on the other side of the bed with tears welling in her eyes; Terry offering a supportive arm around her. It was near-agony watching Melissa feeling helpless so I spoke out loud, “Susan, it’s okay if you have to go. We’re here.”
There were two more labored breaths after that and a long pause before one more impossible breath. I’ll forever feel marked by that moment. It wasn’t as if I physically saw anything but I felt as though I had “seen” her leave and it was one of the most remarkable transformations I had ever seen. It was this feeling of incredible peace and even the muscles in her face relaxed into a reflection of that. The tears came freely to me after that and I found myself in an embrace with my brother, Matt. I didn’t even want to put the pre-cursor of “Step” in front of his name.
I cried for myself then, but I also marveled at what I had witnessed. I felt that Susan had given me the last gift she could before she left. A moment of passing that I had never gotten with my brother, Paul. The moment where I could almost imagine I saw her finally stepping through the door that had been left open for her.
More than one person came to me and told me that it was Monday when they thought she was going to pass. Six days later, the evening after I had arrived, she let go. They would tell me, “You know she waited for you.”
Even with the heaviness, hardship, and grief of being in the room waiting with her, an emotion I wasn’t expecting came flooding in. I was grateful.