Thursday, October 19, 2017. 3:22 PM.
The cheery jingle of an arriving text message caused no alarm. Just another afternoon heading home from campus. Youngest sister checking in. I glance at the phone while the car cools down. Falling below 80 degrees in October is always the hope by Floridians, but jack-o-lanterns turning mushy in Florida heat and humidity is the reality.
Ready to head home, I begin steering the car out of its space and head toward the main road. Her words stop me: “Mom just called. You guys need to call me now.”
I dial the phone. Her shaky voice does not hide her concern. I can feel it: Life was changing in the instant. An ordinary instant, indeed.
Looking back, rereading the messages, I see the irony now: The text message arrived at 3:22 from a sister born on 3/22. What were the chances?
Little did I know what was about to happen. But it did that Thursday afternoon. I waited patiently for my husband to arrive home. A rare business day in Jacksonville had him on the road, now rushing while phoning my mother for details.
6:20 PM: a text to my sisters – We’re on the way.
The hour+ drive felt like eternity. Heading east, darkness engulfs the remaining orange slivers of the setting sun as we drive toward the coast. Heavy rain threatens to slow us down. I think about Mother Nature feeling the loss as Bob slips quietly away in the sterile bed that will comfort him in his final sleep.
Heavy traffic shows no mercy as tired commuters, oblivious to our pain and determination, push toward home. Our wish to arrive quickly to the place protecting him as he dies slowly matters not to fellow drivers.
7:36 PM: A smiling security guard welcomes us and asks that we empty pockets, open bags, and obtain badges. He is here – business as usual. We are here – anything but business as usual. We are here because life is happening on this Thursday. We offer weak smiles and a pleasant thank you for his service.
A short elevator ride delivers us to the third floor. Doors open. We are greeted by locked doors protecting patients in the most critical moments of life, and their families who wait anxiously, hoping for the best, uncertain of what comes next. Beyond those doors we will see Bob, detached from life support, waiting for his body to quietly succumb to his failing heart for the last time.
His sister and cousin are there when we enter the room. His chest rises and falls. I want to close his gaping mouth. He looks like he’s napping and could catch flies. I smile. He looks peaceful, probably for the first time in a long time. Living with his wife, my mother, has been his hell for the past few years. We had no idea how badly until recent months. He is ready to go to the place where his wife of 43 years waits for him. Later that evening I learn that she died on October 20, 2011 after a battle with cancer. Bob is waiting until the hour he can join her. We are sure of it.
For the next several hours, as shifts change and families go home for rest, we sit in chilly ICU room 305, as machines hum and beep. Nurses stop in frequently to check on us. Bob breathes softly as my two sisters, husband and I share stories about our times with him. We laugh at how much he loved to check in to this boutique hospital, just down the street from his home. In recent months, he would arrive with a book and his order for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He raved about their soups. Have you tried the soup? he’d ask with a big grin. It’s delicious! Come on! Order a bowl.. it’s on me!
He’s been a part of our family for only four years, but his gruff Queens disposition juxtaposed with his unending kindness for others has left an indelible mark on our hearts. A grandpa to my nephews and niece, a step-father to my sisters and me, a father-in-law to our husbands, and a volunteer and philanthropist to many, Bob was kind, tolerant, patient, and generous beyond words. Now, as our hearts hold him close, his heart is ready to go. We reminisce, sharing things we know would make him laugh. We suspect he can hear us. We hope that he can. We hope that he is feeling how much we love him, appreciate him, and will miss him. He and Laura never had children. We became his family in our short time together.
By 1:00 AM, knowing it’s the date he’s been holding out for, we are torn: Do we stay or do we go and return in the morning? Vital signs indicate slow progression as his body moves closer to death. We struggle with what to do. Finally, we decide to head home and return early in the morning.
As my sisters step out and my husband comforts them at the door, I reach over and place my hand on Bob’s hand. I tell him I will miss him. I sob. I know this is the last time I will see him in life. His hand flinches. I gasp. And smile. I squeeze his arm in return. I’m certain I felt his hand flinch. He was letting me know things will be okay, that he knew we were there, that we loved him and would miss him. I felt sure at that moment that he really knew how much he meant to us, to me.
Friday, October 20, 2017. 11:16 AM.
As the elevator doors open, we are once again greeted by the now-familiar ICU locked doors, keeping death and sadness inside as the world passes by. We are buzzed in to the solemn space. We learn that Bob took his final breath a little before 10:00 AM, near the time his long-time wife did just six years before. Now it is he who rests in peace, leaving us to figure things out. Little do we know how life altering that will be….
Joan Didion wrote in her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” She reflects on the loss of her husband who suffered a heart attack as the two ate together.
She is right. Life changes in the instant. Pain and sadness not withstanding, life continues on, though. Bills must be paid. Houses cleaned. Widows looked after. Roofs repaired because hurricanes don’t care that homeowners are sick and dying. In the weeks that followed Bob’s death, I feel like I grew up, in spite of already being 50. It was a life altering time for me, for us. As the country celebrated Thanksgiving, we sought respite as we tried to figure things out…
Fast-forward one year.
In the months following Bob’s passing, I’ve heard him in my ear so many times, telling me to remember this, do that… and I smile. It was he who told me in the sweltering July of 2015 to make a decision: Business or hobby? You decide! And so I did. I’ve often said in his absence how much I’ve continued to learn from him, as though he’s guiding me.
Thank you, Bob. I miss you greatly. I appreciate all that you brought to our family in the short time you were with us.
It happened that Thursday in October. Life changed in the instant. Indeed.