My house. It’s really a lovely place to live–or die.
Yes. She finally passed.
Last Tuesday, I was home alone with my mother-in-law. Deborah had the day off. My husband was at work and both children were in school. My mother-in-law was difficult to wake and once awake, she was difficult to feed. She fell asleep between swallows of soup at lunch. Nothing about any of this was terribly unusual. In the past eighteen months, she has had several bouts in which she slept a lot and ate very little, and yet, I had that feeling that something was different.
That night, I gave her tomato-carrot-sausage soup for supper—it was one of her favorites– and followed it with a bowl of ice cream. Chocolate. I spoon-fed her, and she continued to nod off between swallows. Once she was done with the ice cream, I wheeled her back into her bathroom where I washed her hands and face, brushed her teeth and changed her into her best pajamas.
Pajamas hardly seem worth mentioning, but these pajamas! Oh, these pajamas were the softest, most luxurious pajamas ever made and they were relatively new—a Christmas gift from my sister-in-law, her daughter.
Looking back, I’m happy I gave her ice cream and dressed her in her best pajamas—I take a certain comfort in these details–even though pudding is good desserts, too, and all of her pajamas are really pretty nice.
I believe the choices made on Tuesday reflect that change that I wrote about in my last blog entry. “Something has changed, something has turned,” I wrote. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but now, I know—it was peace. Her soul was peaceful. There was an absence of anger and fear, and I believe I was responding to that.
So, I put her in bed, said a quick prayer, and turned out the light.
On Wednesday morning, Deborah arrived and got her meds and breakfast ready and then went into her bedroom to wake her. A moment later, Deborah called out to me. I came downstairs and she discreetly and calmly said, “She’s passed.” We hugged and I went into my mother-in-law’s room. It looked like she was sleeping in the same position I had left her in the night before.
I called my husband. He had already left for work. I said, “You need to come home now.”
“Um, your mom has gone to join your dad.” I couldn’t say, “She died” over the phone.
Then, I had to decide what to tell my children. I figured I had to say something to them right away because I didn’t want to send my daughter to school and then have her come home to discover that Grandma was just gone. Although they are only six and four, my children are two of the most grounded, caring individuals I know. They can handle this, I told myself and then, I took them both into my son’s bedroom and said, “Grandma died last night. She went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Her body is still in her bed, but her soul is in Heaven.”
“Just like Hutch,” my son said referencing a very old rabbit that went to sleep and didn’t wake up.
“Yes,” I said. “Like Hutch.”
I also asked them if they remembered attending their grandfather’s viewing. It was less than two years ago, and they had seen his body in the casket. They had knelt next to it and said a prayer of thanksgiving. “Thank you, God, for all the happy times we had with Grandpa and all the happy memories that will live in our hearts.”
“I don’t think we will have the same kind of opportunity to say good-bye to Grandma,” I told them knowing that my mother-in-law didn’t want an open-casket viewing. “Would you like to go into her room now? It just looks like she is sleeping, and you could see her one last time.”
They nodded. The three of us went into her bedroom and stood by her bed holding hands.
“Good-bye, Grandma. I love you,” my daughter said.
“Good-bye, Grandma. I love you,” my son echoed.
“Dear God,” I prayed, “We thank you for Grandma and all of our happy memories of her. She will live in our hearts forever. Amen.”
Then, I asked my daughter if she wanted to go to school. Yes, she did. “Please understand that if you want to talk about this while at school, you are to go to your teacher or another adult. You are not to discuss Grandma dying with your classmates.” Cuz’ there’s no sense in upsetting kids whose grandmothers may only be a year or two older than Mama.
“The second rule,” I continued, “is that if you want to come home at any point during the day, you are to tell your teacher and I will come get you right away. Do you understand?”
And then, I took her to school. I called the school, too—just to give them a heads-up.
This is the part where I brag about how awesome my children are–again. Honestly, even if they weren’t related to me, I would still want to know them. They are caring, smart, and grounded. Not much rattles them. I love these qualities. I can’t say that I’ve done anything to make them this way. It’s not due to my influence or my parenting skills. I’m just lucky. I won the kid-lottery. I suspect most parents feel that way.
My husband came home. We hugged. We exchanged those meaningful glances—the kind that takes the place of words when there are no words to accurately describe the thoughts and feelings. He went into her room, stayed there a few minutes, and once he came out, I said, “We need to call someone to come get her. Do you want to use the same funeral home we used for your dad?”
I called the funeral home because I thought I remembered being told that you call a funeral home directly when someone dies in your home. As it turns out, however, you must first call the police so that they can issue a case number giving the funeral home permission to move the body. “Use the non-emergency number,” the funeral home employee advised me.
And so I did. I looked up the non-emergency police number and called. I explained the situation to the person who answered that phone, and she put me through to the dispatcher—the emergency services dispatcher. Yes, this is the same person you get when you dial 9-1-1, but I didn’t know that.
“Fire, police, EMS?”
“Excuse me?” I said because this really caught me off-guard. This was not an emergency as far as I was concerned.
“What emergency service do you require? Fire, police, EMS?” he repeated.
“Um, medical examiner?” I answered. “My mother-in-law died in her sleep last night.”
“Have you tried to revive her with CPR?”
“No. I suspect she has been dead for several hours. She died in her sleep.”
“Okay, I am dispatching.”
Within minutes, three police cruisers AND a fire-truck AND an EMS arrived at my house. I had already told my son that some people would be coming to get Grandma, and he had excused himself up-stairs to play quietly in his room. Again, this is how I know I won the kid-lottery. Now, however, there was a fire-truck in front of our house. What 4-year-old boy isn’t going to be excited about this? And what adult isn’t going to think, “Really?!?! Is this the best use of our tax money?”
The fire-fighters and the EMTs carried their equipment into the house, took one look at my mother-in-law, and carried equipment back out. They were very nice about it. Very respectful. They left because there really wasn’t anything for them to do here. It wasn’t an emergency.
The police, however, took a report. Who was the last person to see her alive? What time did she go to sleep? Was she on any medication? How old is she? What did she eat the day before? How long has she lived with us? How was her overall health? Who found her this morning?
The officers taking the report were young. One might have been 30, and the other was maybe 23 or 24. One had just become a father, and the other was engaged to be married. One had been born in Anne Arundel County and had rarely left the state of Maryland, and the other was trying to convince him to travel “before it’s too late.” They were pleasant and patient with us as we answered their questions with more information than they needed. I told them that my mother-in-law was from Ecuador and had visited Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. I told them that she had worked for the Ecuadorian Embassy and the Organization of the American States and had volunteered at the White House. It was like having a small wake in my kitchen over coffee.
Then, they called the medical examiner who, to my knowledge, listened to the details of the police report and decided to “sign off” on the phone versus launching an investigation. Phone calls, emails, faxes, whatever were exchanged between the medical examiner and my mother-in-law’s doctor, and eventually, the younger, un-travelled police officer handed my husband a card with a case number on it. At last, we could call the funeral home.
This time a different person answered the phone at the funeral home and for the sixth time, I had to tell someone that my mother-in-law had died in her sleep. The funeral home person asked me questions about the arrangements and for the first time, I began to feel the stress of the day, the magnitude of what had happened.
“We aren’t ready to make arrangements. You handled my father-in-law’s funeral a year and a half ago and so I am asking you to handle hers. Other than that, I’m not in a position to make decisions. Just come get her body. Now.” I was a bit curt, but damn it, I had a dead body in my house and I desperately wanted this day to be over.
The funeral home sent two middle-aged men in suits. They, like everyone else who had been in and out of my house that day, were very nice, very sensitive to the fact that the situation is rare and awkward. They counseled us briefly and advised my husband to have her embalmed because we didn’t know how long it would take us to get in touch with other family members who may want to see her before she was cremated.
Then, they lifted her onto the gurney and zipped the body bag before rolling her out the door to their van.
From the moment Deborah discovered her lifeless body to the time when the van pulled out of our drive way was only five hours, and yet, to me, it felt like fifty. “This has been the longest day of my life,” I said to my husband.
He disagreed. “Really? It’s like a blur to me. It’s all happened so fast.” We had had a similar discussion in the hospital after his heart attack.
Now, I would describe that afternoon, evening and the next few days as a blur. I can’t tell you what we ate that night, but I’m sure I served the children something for dinner. I don’t remember meeting my daughter at the bus stop after school, but I’m sure I did. A mind-numbing blur. I can’t say that I felt sad or even relieved for the first few days.
I think I was just in a state of shock, and yet, there is nothing shocking about an old person in ill health dying in her sleep. The words “So, this is it,” kept coming into my mind just as they had at every other big moment of my life. My first kiss, my high school graduation, going into labor with my first child…yes, at every big moment in my life, my thoughts have been the same. “So, this is it,” and “It happened. I knew it would happen, and yet, I am surprised it happened. I can’t believe it happened.” No doubt, this is what I will be thinking as I am dying.
Now, some time has passed and it’s been a flood of emotions. I’m over the shock. Yes. It finally happened.