The writings below are a result of my therapy session with Dr. Jerry on Monday, March 17th. The memories came wrenching out in his office and he encouraged me to write them down. If I can get them out of my head, perhaps they won’t haunt my dreams.
These memories are not pretty. They are honest, raw, and heart-shattering. Please don’t expect euphemisms, roses, or sugar-coating. There are none.
There was a thread of memory through the day, March 17th – starting Sunday afternoon, and continuing until we disbanded last night, there was the glimpse at the clock, and then the comments would come hurling out uncontrollably.
Sunday morning, Sue calls Jennifer and me and says “something’s not right – it’s different this time. You have to come. Now.”
Sunday afternoon, Hospice Joe says that Mama was “actively dying.” We call the people who need to come – David Lee, Amy & Mike, Wanda & Kathryn, and Mrs Bonham are the ones I remember most clearly. They take turns sitting with Mama and reading to her.
There are people there that I hate – they’ve come into my house, into our house of death, and they’re feasting on our pain. I wish they would go.
I don’t remember sleeping Sunday night, but I know I probably did. Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Rocky stay in Mama’s room for a long time. Uncle Rocky blames us – he’s angry, so angry he can’t stand to look at us, and we don’t understand why.
Monday afternoon, Jennifer, Sue and I slip unnoticed into Sue’s bedroom and plan Mama’s funeral. We select Sullivan-King because Mama loves the columns out front, Townville Baptist cemetery because it’s close to home and Mama loves the daisies, Everett Thornton as the officiant because he understands, Earles Grove Baptist Church because she thinks its beautiful, and was disappointed when first I, then Jennifer, selected somewhere else for our weddings, and music – “It Is Well With My Soul”, her favorite hymn, and Mike Snyder singing. We decide to include tributes, and choose the speakers – Ann Lee, Brian Keefer, Rachel Shortt, Bobby, Tom, and Vickie McCall.
Monday evening, Mama’s breathing changes.
Jennifer, Susanna, Daddy and I gather around her and tell it’s ok to leave. That we love her. That we’re proud of her. We say the words we think she needs to hear… we don’t feel them because we’re no longer feeling anything. We’re robots, woodenly functioning, doing anything we can to make it easier for her, focused on only Mama and everything else is only a blur. A blur of loved ones, of caring, compassionate hands, of intruders staring, of wailing and sobbing. When the emotions becomes too much, I ask Amy to remove the offenders from the room. Nothing, no one, is allowed to make this harder for Mama, no matter how much pain they feel.
The seizures begin. They are grotesque, gruesome, nightmarish caricatures of Mama, of our childhood, of our innocence. They twist Mama’s face and make it into a mask that still haunts my dreams. They twist her body, her hands, arch her back. Susanna, who is witnessing her first seizure, begins screaming – a shattering, mindless keening of grief and fear that goes on and on, like the background music in a movie. Someone cradles her, holds a bag to her mouth and urges her to breathe. Jennifer and I go into motion – unthinking, automated, robotic motion. Together, we turn Mama on her side so that she won’t choke. We order someone to give us a cool, damp washcloth and keep them coming. We reassure the horrified, stricken faces surrounding the bed – there are so many of them – that there’s nothing to be done, and we just have to wait for it to pass.
So we wait. And wait. Hospice Joe has left earlier in the day because she thought that we were stablized – she’s now racing back to Townville to provide medication and solace. And Jennifer and I take turns – we hold Mama’s head against our chests so that only we can see her contorted nightmare face. Jennifer wedges her body under Mama’s head and cradles it, smoothing Mama’s hair with her face turned away. I look at Mama’s unfamiliar face and realize that she has bitten off her tongue. There’s blood streaming from her mouth, and a piece of her flesh is lying on the blood-soaked pillow. I grab another pillow and hold it over her face – not tight enough to prevent her from drawing her tortured breaths, but covering the horror that is now my dear, precious Mama’s face.
An hour passes. Or maybe it was two.
When Joe arrives, she takes control. She adminsters what’s needed, and slowly Mama’s body relaxes. Joe reassures us again and again that Mama can’t feel anything – that the seizure numbs, and shuts the brain down, making it impossible to register pain. She urges us to leave the room, to take a break. We do, staring blankly into space, occasionally opening our mouths as someone thrusts yet another bite of food at us. She calls us back in to say goodbye. When we reenter Mama’s room, I see her eye open and staring, and I know that she’s gone. I wasn’t in the room when she left. Only Joe was there. I lie down next to her, next to her staring eye, her bloody mouth, and hold her precious little head. Jennifer smooths her hair – smoothing and smoothing and smoothing. Susanna is uncontrollable, inconsolable. She races, shrieking, out of the room, out of the house, and into the yard – I can hear her screaming obscenities at God through the fog in my ears. Mike runs after her, and trips over one of the countless staring faces in our living room – those who couldn’t resist staying, and are now too terrified and overwhelmed to leave. He falls hard, but continues scrambling for the door, intent only on saving Susanna from herself, from her grief that her 20-yr-old mind doesn’t understand how to process.
We put a cap on Mama’s head – a little soft lavender cotton sleepcap that she wore during chemo. We gently pull it down over her hair, and tell the nice, respectful men NOT to remove it. NOT to fix her hair. NOT to wash her hair. NOT to touch her hair.
We go into Sue’s room, and wait for the professionals to do their jobs. Two quiet, appropriately respectful men wearing suits have entered, and with the help of Joe and all the people in our living room, they are removing the body. The body. We hear the stretcher wheel roll past our door. There’s a vent in the door, and I see a shadow passing. The shadow of the men removing the body. I feel like vomiting. This is a feeling that I will become very familiar with.
We change the bloody sheets and the three of us, the sisters three, sleep in Mama’s bed. I am lying where Mama died.
On Tuesday, we go to the funeral home. We sit at the long, shiny table and make arrangements. We’ve already written the obituary, and we give it to Sullivan-King. It doesn’t fit their template. We don’t care. We choose a casket. And then the nice solomn young man asks us if we’re ready. We take Mama’s happy pink linen dress, and our little bag of accessories.
Walking down a long hall. It’s sterile, not like the front where the thick carpet muffles your footsteps and the lighting is appropriately dim. Here, the lights glare. The walls are white. The floor is tile and our shoes echo. We enter a room, and it’s hard to see anything except Mama. She’s lying on a metal surface. Her eyes are shut now, permamently. Her mouth is still relaxed and slightly open per our request, but the blood has been washed away. She is under a sheet, and her nightgown is lying neatly folded on a counter nearby. Her nightgown is there, which means that she is lying on that cold metal, naked. Under the edge of the sheet, I see an incision going down, with stitches. Or do I?
My brain is numb. My motions are jerky, unnatural, but determined. In a detached way, I remove the comb, hairbrush, and clips from the bag. I gently, oh so gently, run the comb through her tangled curls. Her curls were so important to her – they were a symbol of her healing that never arrived. Large chunks come out in my hands, loosened by the brain radiation treatments. She had a treatment just five days ago. I’ve combed her hair for her so many times. I can do it again.
There’s a mass of tangles on the back of her head where she slept on her back. Before, I would help her sit up so that I could comb the back. Now, she’s stiff. She can’t sit up. Her head is propped on a little plastic stand – the kind I see now on CSI, Law & Order, those shows that use to be just mindless entertainment. The plastic stand is where the tangles are, and I can’t get them out. I can’t pull too hard – her hair is coming out. It’s coming out. I smooth the front, part her hair on the side, pull the front over and clip it with one of her little clips. I smooth the sides, and leave the back. There’s nothing I can do to fix it. There’s nothing I can do to fix any of this.
Her hands are cold. They are the deadest part of her. They are white, hard, plastic. Her diamond band is still on her ring finger – the diamond band that I chose for her and hid in the back of the case at Skatell’s so that no one would buy it while I convinced Daddy. Someone tells the nice Sullivan-King man – was it me? was it Daddy? – that we would like to have the ring removed. It’s on my finger as I type.
We forgot to bring shoes. We call someone – I don’t know who – and ask them to bring her khaki linen sandals with the low heels. They’re the ones she wore with her pink linen dress. The shoes they bring are the wrong ones. They aren’t linen, they are cream, they have high heels. They won’t work – she would never wear those shoes with her pink dress. So we discuss it and decide to leave her feet bare. She liked bare feet better anyway. Her feet are covered with ant bites because she refused to wear shoes in the yard. Those damn fire ants.