The Other End of Sunset

Saturday, June 24, 2006

I think we all want peace, but it's too much to face and it's too far to reach

Well, well, well… What do I blog about today?

Perhaps I should blog about the way death actually happens.

Yep, you read that right.

I lost two readers this week. One reader stopped reading because of what I wrote. This reader, henceforth known as “TR”, read too many bits of my writing. TR saw a few too many bits of this blog – or perhaps “recognized” is the right word – and felt that I was being too blunt, too honest, too much TR-focused. Perhaps TR was right, although I have to admit, I don’t think so.

The other reader I lost to cancer. Jeanne Michele Russell, born April 27, 1961, died June 23, 2006, at 1:40 pm. She fought a 6 month battle with cancer, and won.

She didn’t like talking about it as a fight – because that suggests there is a winner, and, worse, a loser. She didn’t want people to think she “lost” – because she was afraid that people would think she didn’t try hard enough.

Trust me, she tried hard enough. She went through chemo. She went through so many surgeries I can’t even remember them all. She had three different tubes in her. She couldn’t lift more than 5 pounds with her right arm because of one of the tubes. Yes, she was right handed.

Did you know that she was a bodybuilder in graduate school? And that when we started dating, she could do more sit-ups than me? But she couldn’t lift more than 5 pounds with that arm.

She weighed 95 pounds at the end. While she was still stronger, I used to rag on her to get her to do some core exercises, on an Aerex pad, or on the Bosu ball. She did her best – she was a trooper. But eventually, a while ago, her balance got too bad.

She used to sleep on a bed that I bought and put in our living room, so we could be together when she needed to rest. When I bought it, she asked me – in a horrified tone of voice – if it was a “sick bed”.

I lied. I told her it wasn’t. But I knew better.

Sometimes a lie is the best path.

When her balance got bad, and as she lost weight, she got very weak. I promised that I'd care for her. What I said was something rich like “Honey, when you need it, I'll carry you up these stairs. I won’t let you get hurt.”

Rich, huh?

What I didn’t understand, at the time, was that she was terrified that I'd have to do so.

Last week, she wanted to come downstairs – see, she’d been spending all day in her bed, upstairs. Anyway, she wanted to come downstairs, spend some time in front of the TV, with me. I think we watched a House episode. Or something. Anyway, it took us 5 minutes to get downstairs. I walked in front of her. That way, if she fell, she’d fall on me.

The advantages are obvious. I'm heavier than her, and stronger. So if she fell, I could catch her. How sad is it that we were planning for her to fall.

Well, regardless, she didn’t fall.

But when it came time to go back upstairs, she was so unsteady that she had trouble walking across the floor. I was afraid of her climbing the stairs. So I carried her. And she was, at the same time, grateful AND incredibly sad.

I had to carry her. I didn’t mind. But she did. She never wanted to be weak, or vulnerable. And she was.

She was dying.

She never came downstairs again.

Except on a stretcher. In a bag.

People don’t die the way they do in Hollywood movies. It doesn’t take 5 minutes.

JR’s death was mostly very peaceful. I was there, holding her hand, telling her I love her, and that it was time to let go, and that we’d all be ok.

There were a few minutes where she was choking. She was terrified. I will carry the image of her, in those few minutes, for the rest of my life. I couldn’t help her. The nurse told me that I shouldn’t do anything, just comfort her, tell her it was all going to be ok. So I did.

Strangely enough, that didn’t help. So I lifted her head. That helped.

But she died anyway.

However, she didn’t die terrified.

She died quietly. Her breathing just stopped. I was holding her hand. Did I say that already?

About ten minutes before she died, she opened her eyes, looked at me, and said “Ok, it’s time. I'm ready.”

I told her goodbye, and thanked her for being in my life. She smiled at me.

Then she died.

But she didn’t quite die. She started showing incredible apnea – her breathing would stop for almost 30 seconds at a time. In fact, I couldn’t tell when she died. I had to keep looking at the nurse to see if she was alive, and the nurse was able to see what I couldn’t – little micro-breaths.

When the other hospice nurse came that morning, she noticed that there was no pulse in JR’s feet, and they were red and swollen. She didn’t tell me there was no pulse there—but they told me later. When the primary hospice nurse came that afternoon, she told me that JR’s pulse in her wrist was so weak that she couldn’t feel it. She found a pulse in her carotid – barely – and could hear it in her stethoscope. JR’s blood pressure was 60 over 40.

For those of you playing the home game, that’s pretty darn low.

By the end, the nurse couldn’t even hear her pulse in the scope, but could still feel it faintly in her carotid.

She lasted a long time on these awful breaths, with her eyes fixed, and no pupil response to light. The nurse said that her heart was strong, it was lasting longer. She actually said “healthy hearts resist dying longer”.

I think I shall never exercise again.

The hospice people cleaned up the house, after, and dressed her in a lovely blouse that her mom and I picked out. They put makeup on her, and lipstick. She looked beautiful.

I kept seeing her breathe, just like when she was sleeping. She had almost a smile on her face.

Before she died, she kept saying “Lift me up, lift me up.” Do you think she was talking to me, or to someone else?

At one point, she looked at a corner of the room and smiled and said something like “hi!” to nothing. At the same time, my Dalmation looked at that corner and barked softly.

Minnie – the Dal – had a boyfriend named Flanagan. Flanny was JR’s first dog. Flanny died several years ago. Do you think Flan came to help JR find the way after? I want to believe that. JR would have followed Flan anywhere.

I hope he led her well.

We went to mass today. We, in this case, includes an old friend of JR’s who was there when she died, and my best friend. I kept crying through mass – it was embarrassing. I mean, really, what kind of man am I, anyway? Boys don’t cry, as you know.

The mass today was about fear, and how God wants us not to be afraid. The reading was about the Apostles getting afraid of a storm, and waking Jesus up, and he told them not to be afraid.

Hmm. I could get away here with comparing myself to Jesus, although I think it’s an unhealthy habit.

Regardless, the only thing of substance I said to JR in the last day was not to be afraid. I think she wasn’t.

I can’t describe how hard it is. I thought I was ready for her to die.

I was wrong.

Or maybe I am ready, but it’s harder than I thought. Kind of like when you pick up a weight to deadlift it, but it’s heavier than you expected, and there’s that period of unsustainable pain when you lift the weight.

How long will I feel this way? Will it pass soon?

The hospice people took all the medical supplies – we had a lot of excess stuff, and some of it was expensive. I hope other sick people can benefit. JR’s mom and friend have cleaned up the room where she was sleeping. I returned a painting we had moved to its original location.

I am sitting here watching TV. Next to the TV is a guitar, in a box. I bought it because JR said she wanted to learn to play guitar. She never got around to learning.

Maybe I will learn.

I think a successful blog post is one where I say at least one thing that makes me uncomfortable. One of my friends described me as a “not of one the good guys, one of the fabulous guys”.

I don’t know if that’s true. But I hope I did what JR needed me to do. I hope that she felt safe, and warm.

At the end of it all, I did my best. That will have to be sufficient.