I share my most recent solo piano rendition of “Hang On.” The beautiful melody is suffused with love. My post title “Let Love Shine a Light” is a lyric line from that song.
I waited four hours for the ventilator to be disconnected. But when the time came, it was an efficient process that took less than ten minutes. I nervously stood in the back of the room and watched. My friend, Jeanne, who had never wanted that kind of intervention, would soon be free. Her nurse motioned that I could come closer again.
Jeanne looked so much more comfortable without the tubes and tape around her mouth. I texted a picture to her family so they could see how relaxed she was.
I kept telling her how much her family loved her. And most importantly, I was certain Jillian was waiting for her. The fact that this was Jillian’s day was such an eerie coincidence.
“Anniversaries of the Heart” are important days for many bereaved people. I still have two special people that reach out to me on the date Jason died. My sister-in-law always sends a card and another friend calls me every year. My mother and Jeanne also remembered Jason’s birth and death days until they were no longer able to.
I try hard to acknowledge those days for certain friends of mine. One that really stood out for me was Jillian’s. Since she was stillborn, the date of March 17th was the day Jeanne considered both her birth and death day.
I reconnected with Jeanne in 2013, after losing touch for almost 20 years. We had drifted apart when she and her husband moved away. But one day, she called me out of the blue and our friendship was reignited. She told me she had gotten divorced and was living nearby. I shared that I had also gotten divorced. (Playing my guitar at her wedding was another story and a sweet memory.)
Even after decades, Jeanne would still cry over her baby girl. When she told me that daffodils were comforting, I made it a point to bring her a bouquet every year around that difficult day.
Over the past nine years, Jeanne struggled with health issues. A few years after we reconnected, she was diagnosed with a horrible disease named Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus or NPH. After many falls, she became bedridden. She started with board and care homes and after several hospitalizations ended up in a nursing home. In one of those board and care places, she had such serious bedsores that I had to call 911.
Her facility wasn’t close by and my dedication to visiting never seemed like enough, because she had few visitors. It was definitely a big deal for the nursing home to put her in a wheelchair so we could sit outside in the sunshine. I was glad I could bring over her favorite foods each time I came. Cracking pistachios for us helped to pass the time. On her birthday, I would bring her favorite meal – lobster. I would never forget her joy when I arrived with that delicacy. Her family always reimbursed me and visited from out of state whenever they could.
After losing my mother, being in a nursing home triggered many emotions for me. But making a difference was far more important. When I was in deep grief, Jeanne had been there and I would never forget that. When my son died, no one else seemed to understand my grief the way she did. When Jeanne described her memories of him, sometimes she became teary. The connection she had with my little boy was something I very much appreciated.
With the Covid pandemic, things became much worse for Jeanne. The isolation took a toll. Dementia set it. She was hospitalized with Covid. Although she recovered, she continued to require supplemental oxygen.
I was nervous visiting her after that. It had been over a year and I wondered if she would recognize me. She certainly did, but couldn’t hear me with a mask and face shield on. Once we were outside, I pulled my mask down to better connect with her. For those next few months, I brought her special lunches and could see her enjoyment. Through these difficult years she never complained. At the beginning, she would demand that I stay longer when I was ready to leave. But toward the end, she would fall asleep as soon as she finished eating.
My last visit to the nursing home was noticeably different. I had driven an hour to visit her, and after 20 minutes she asked if she could go back to her room. As I kissed her goodbye, I wondered if I would see her again. Covid surged that fall and winter, and I was not allowed to visit for another six months.
I saw on my calendar that Jillian’s day was approaching. Thankfully, the virus case numbers were down and things were opening up again. I was glad I would be allowed to visit and bring her daffodils.
But on Sunday evening of the week I planned to visit, I received a call that Jeanne had sepsis and was on life support. Because she wasn’t expected to live very long, I drove to the hospital that night to see her. I held her hand until midnight and then went home. Her daughter came out to say goodbye on Tuesday and traveled back the same day. She had a toddler at home and was completely overwhelmed by the situation.
Jeanne had expressly said she never wanted to be on a ventilator. On Thursday, her daughter told the hospital that life support could be discontinued.
All week I wondered whether I was up to being there at the end. Despite my doubts and lack of commitment, I cancelled all my plans when I heard that the ventilator would be turned off on Thursday before noon.
When I arrived at her bedside, Jeanne’s eyes were open and she tracked my movements with a worried look. Her agitation over having a tube in her mouth was clear. I felt strangely calm and detached, despite knowing I would soon watch my friend die.
I sat close and said, “Jeanne, I am so sorry. I don’t know what to say. Today is the day I was going to bring you daffodils! This is Jillian’s day! And now instead of longing for her, you are going to see her!”
The hospice nurse arrived and quickly announced Jeanne needed more sedation. A Chaplain followed. He recited beautiful prayers and emphatically announced that God was in the room with us.
The Ativan worked and Jeanne’s eyes finally closed. I had brought a speaker with me and propped it next to her ear. I played aloud my favorite meditation songs. “Angel in the Sky” and “Beside Me Always” were absolutely ethereal.
The nurse told me there was a lot of preparation to be done first. He said firmly, “We need to get all our ducks in a row.” I wouldn’t forget his words as the hours dragged on. I continually texted her family with updates about the situation. I realized that I wasn’t only helping to comfort Jeanne. They were very grateful I was there.
Time is definitely warped in a hospital. I lost track of it. As I sat there listening to the beeping machines, I wondered how my own life would end. My mortality felt real and raw. I wasn’t sure whether I would want my children to watch me die. It was tough seeing both my parents suffer at the end of their lives.
I thanked God for my music; it was such sweet comfort and soothed my aching heart. I was in absolute awe that those meditation recordings filling that ICU room were my own creations. I grinned when one of the doctors commented. He said, “All of the staff are in a Zen-like state listening to your music.”
Once the ventilator was disconnected, all the alarms were turned off and it was quiet. Now it was just the two of us in that sterile ICU room. The doctor said she could die quickly or it might take hours.
I watched my friend breathe. At first, I thought, “She can breathe on her own, she’s still alive!” But after a few minutes I could see her breathing wasn’t normal. Her breaths were incredibly rapid – one every second. How was that possible? I imitated it briefly and felt myself hyperventilating.
I patiently waited. It seemed like soon it would be over. When the hospice nurse told me it might be midnight before Jeanne passed, I decided I would leave. It was getting dark and I had a long drive home. I hadn’t had lunch or drank any water. I had kept my mask on tightly since Jeanne had MRSA and a doctor warned me to be careful.
I tried to counter my sadness by re-framing my thoughts. This wasn’t a marathon where I had to prove something by getting to the finish line. I was there to comfort her before she began her journey. Now I could see Jeanne was deeply in a tunnel, exiting life. Her breathing was raspy and sharp. It was the same as my father’s – a death rattle.
I said my last goodbye.
I gave my phone number to the staff and they promised to let me know when she passed. The hospice nurse said, “Jeanne might even be waiting for you to leave.”
She died a few hours later. I was still numb from the long day, but grateful I was able to be there for her. It was all so unreal.
But now she was with Jillian, at last.
(An earlier post I wrote when I first reconnected with Jeanne: YOUR HAND WAS THE ONE HOLDING MINE)