It Happened that Thursday

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.

Text Message You need to call me now.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.

people sitting in hospital roomFor 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.

Man lies in hospital bedAs 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.

Sitting by a windowShe 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.

Man sits at dinner tableIn 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.

Polish, Postmortem?

 

cadaver

Who thinks about toenails, and more specifically, toenail polish, postmortem?

Admittedly (0ddly!), I do.

What?!?

I can see your face, that quizzical look taking over. Let me explain….

About twenty-five years ago, while taking an A & P class in college, I was invited to participate in a visit to the local chiropractic college, where we’d have the opportunity to examine cadavers. First thought: Ugh!  Second thought: Fascinating! Count me in.

cadaver lab in a medical school
credit: ehs.svvsd.org

Entering tentatively, I remember the smells of preservatives (formaldehyde?) filling my nose as draped bodies lay lifeless, an experience that stays sharp in my mind, in my otherwise sketchy memories. It was, at once, fascinating and unnerving.

 

 

cadavers
credit: economist.com/getty images

As we examined the cadavers, I remember noticing small things that stuck with me, one in particular that often tickles my brain when I least expect it:  a deceased woman’s feet, with flesh still on parts of her toes, her bubblegum-pink toenail polish peeling and chipping. I remember thinking, “Poor woman. This is how she’ll be remembered…. with peeling polish.”

Yep. That was my takeaway…. the travesty of peeling toenail polish and how it would be with her in eternity… Really, Rob? Sadly, yes. Weird, I know.

But wait. It gets better.

A gazillion times since that visit to the cadaver lab, I’ve looked down at my own peeling toenail polish and thought, “Dear Lord, don’t let today be the day. My nails are a mess! I don’t want to be remembered this way.”

chipped, peeling toenail polish
Embarrassing!

This crazy, recurring thought haunted me recently, as my Cabernet-colored, long-worn polish hung on with defiance – peeling, cracking, chipping, and generally looking hideous. Oh no! What if today is my day?!?

toenails by the pool
Pretty!

Enter my friend, Natine, who coincidentally was also thinking about her own toenail polish, but (thankfully) in much more positive (and pretty!) way. She, like me, describes herself as ‘not particularly girlie-girl,’ so when pretty toes prevail, it’s something to celebrate! (I didn’t  know this about my dear friend, until I read her post, Decorated Digits).   Believe me, the absurdity of two intelligent women, both admittedly not girlie-girls by nature, but both worrying about the state of their toenail polish, was not lost on me! Dear Lord, what have we come to??

Then there was this….

For those who’ve read my blog a while, you might remember that I often talk about ‘signs’ and look for them. Be careful what you look for!

Recently, while reading comments on another blog, I stumbled on to Jots from a Small Apt, a blog penned and illustrated with colorful words and images, and guess what I see?  You got it:  toenails!

Imagine my surprise – serendipity.

 

watercolour: toenails in a bathtub
credit: jotsfromasmallapt.wordpress.com

 

It’s the oddities that make us who we are, I suppose.

Let’s make a pact:  If we end up beside each other in the morgue, I promise not to look at your toes if you’ll agree to do the same. And if, by chance, my toenail polish is peeling and you do notice, promise you won’t tell.  😉

Speaking of morgues, want an interesting read? Check out Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, a 2003 nonfiction book by Mary Roach. I started reading it when I was still teaching in our local high school… my students were fascinated, to say the least.

Book cover: Stiff, by Mary Roach
credit: amazon.com

 

Go ahead. Take a look at your toenails.

Are they ready?

Have a great day!

🙂

Helping Teens Handle Life. And Death.

Being a high school teacher affords me many opportunities to help teens handle life. And loss.  It is at once:  enlightening, encouraging, painful, and honest. Emotions are raw, understanding often limited, and nearly all experiences are ‘firsts.’ Sadly, some, like birth and death, become second- and third-time experiences for a few.  Being there, with a shoulder, a safe place to cry, or a place to celebrate, makes my job a special one.

This year, like many, has seen our share of experiences, but this year, we’ve lost more classmates than a typical year – to car accidents, cancer, and other tragedies.  Each is felt deeply.  Each teaches lessons.  Each helps our teens grow into the people they become.

Peyton, an old soul in her own right and typically outspoken and colorful, was dealing with our most recent loss, Brandie, a beautiful young lady killed tragically on her way home from Spring Break, just a week ago.

In Peytons’s words….

Friend's death is felt with a heavy heart
Friend’s death, felt with a heavy heart – blackout poetry provides a way to share teen’s darkest moment….
Protected happiness begins to shine through again.....
One week later: Protected happiness begins to shine through again…..

If Only I Knew

Death. A dreadful event.

“Why did it happen?” they asked yesterday.

If only I knew.

Navigating daily twists and turns with teens broadens my perspective, tickles my funny bone, sharpens details often overlooked in a chaotic adult world, but in the never-ending ‘tragedies’ teens create, death – a real tragedy – brings pause. And confusion.

“Why did it happen?” they ask.

And in that brief pause, the air heavy with sorrow, I have no answers for these young people who’ve come to expect reasonable reasons and enlightened explanations.

If only I knew ….  is all I can muster.

Death. A dreadful event.

R.I.P.  Axel and Cameron.