My life experiences have opened my mind to numerous left of center ideas. Conversations with terminally ill people can give you an enlightened perspective. The peace that some attain when the end of their physical life is near is both awe inspiring and comforting. Maybe it’s that the majority of the people in my life that I’ve lost have been in significant pain and I was able to justify the ending as the ultimate relief of their agony. Displays of the enormous power of the human spirit never cease to amaze. My brother waited for me, the last of the immediate family, to arrive from Minnesota to pass. He allowed me the time to say goodbye and the otherwise comatose man mustered the strength to squeeze my hand to acknowledge my presence and bid me farewell. A little over 2 hours later, he was gone.
Another example of this amazing power came from Dawn. Her fight with stomach cancer was excruciating at the end. She was hooked up to an IV pump that attached to a surgically implanted port that ran directly to her heart blasting her with the largest dosage of morphine allowed, 24/7, and it still wasn’t always enough. She had lost even more weight from her already frail body as it started to shut down. Carrying her from chair to couch to bed was relatively effortless. As the morphine dosages increased, it left fewer and fewer moments of lucidity as she seemingly hallucinated, having conversations with departed friends and relatives.
There was nothing in the world that meant more to Dawn than being a grandmother. Nothing. She would confide that she felt horrible about the way she handled our long term separation and the kids. She felt that she put them in a bad situation by her “errors” in judgments and they paid a heavy price. Her avenue for redemption was to be her grandchildren. We talked about the things that we would do with them and the fun we would have. Besides the parents, no one was more upset at the loss of our first granddaughter, Alexis, than Dawn. At the time, the tests showed her to be cancer free and we believed that the worst of her illness had past but there was always the lingering thought that it could come back. The oncologist warned that if/when the cancer returned; it would be agonizingly painful but relatively quick. They didn’t lie. A couple months later, the birth of our first grandson, Konner came as such a gift. She was thrilled. Our 2 hour drive from the Twin Cities to Rice Lake, WI seemed to take an eternity. The pure joy displayed on her face when she first held him in her arms remains beautifully etched in my memory. All the while this was happening, her test results were showing greater and greater abnormalities. The cancer had returned with a voracious appetite. We were in denial and heard only the good things when speaking with the doctors. We did everything we could to immerse her in nothing but positive vibes but the inevitable ending was all but set. Just the date that was in question. Or so we thought.
Dawn’s appetite for solid food disappeared and was replaced by intravenous “nutrition” bags. The weight and strength loss came in relative progression. Mobility became limited as she became wheelchair bound. Seeking salvation was central to her final days. Apologies and confessions came as friends and relatives paraded through the house. She purged her soul. One of my final promises to her was to be sure that our grandchildren always knew just how much she would have loved them. (A promise that I keep to this day.) She monitored Konner’s growth by phone and frequent visits. Ever weakening, Dawn set a mental goal. She would witness his 1st birthday party. It was nothing that she ever verbalized but the evidence is irrefutable.
The birthday came all too quick. The day before the celebration, I was dispatched to find suitable gifts from us and return for inspection. One outfit was immediately rejected and I gladly returned the items for more suitable colors. She was in amazing spirits: strong, alert and playfully full of piss and vinegar. Rob, Jenny and Konner arrived the following day sadly minus the revelry normally reserved for a first grandchild’s first birthday. This day was not as particularly good day for her as the rollercoaster took a heavy dip. Fatigue shone from the inside out like a beaten old boxer in the 15th round. She “aged” dramatically in final months with the loose skin merely draped over her tiny frame. (Her photos from that day are shocking and unpublishable) Her dark sunken eyes took in all of the festivities as she silently sang along to “Happy Birthday”. A broad grin covered her face as Konner playfully destroyed his “personal” cake and tore into his brightly wrapped gifts.
As the evening started to wind down, Dawn took everything in like a sponge. Her eyes followed and observed everything. I playfully complained about her staring to make light of the situation. This is how we dealt with the uncomfortableness. Smart assed wise cracks were endlessly bantered about. Occasionally driven to contribute, she would whisper her comments into someone’s ear for amplification. Her wit was intact.
As I had the 8 am shift, I readied myself to leave as Rob and family prepared the guest room. (Dawn was living with her parents. Her mother took family medical leave to care for her as I had just started my ill fated tenure at the community center. I had purchased a manufactured home just blocks from them to be in close proximity. Now you know why I’m stuck in a mobile home!) With all the goodbyes taken care of around the room, I leaned over and gave my so very sick wife a good night kiss. I whispered that I would try to stop by in the morning before work or would definitely stop after. She replied, “You won’t have to.” I giggled thinking that she was being selfless and wanted me concentrate on my new employment. Throwing on my jacket, I answered “Cut it out. I know I don’t have to, I want to. I’ll see you tomorrow.” “And I’ll see you later.” she responded emphatically. “What does that mean?” I asked of her cryptic comment. “It means what it means. You’ll see me tomorrow and I’ll see you later!” she said with furled brow almost angrily. Jokingly throwing my arms in the air, “Whatever you say Dear! Good night.” as I leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. She gave my hand a tender squeeze and offered a small grin. She held on a heartbeat longer than usual as I walked out the front door around 11:00.
We didn’t realize but Dawn had checked off the last item on her “To Do” list that night. All the goodbyes had been said and her conscience was clear. Konner was a year old. It was time to rest. The phone rang at 4:30 am saying that she had passed in her sleep…
The memorial service was as nice as something like that could be. So many friends and family offered support and condolences in person, by phone and by email. Some sent beautiful flowers and plants. Following mass, the typical basement buffet offered the opportunity to share stories and catch up. My very dear friend Jeff had generously produced a video collage of Dawn’s life from birth to death. We simply gave him some of our favorite photos and a couple of song ideas and he worked his magic. I busied myself attempting to visit with, or at the very least, acknowledge the people that attended specifically for me as the tape looped on a TV in the corner of the dank basement. During the presentations, the combination of tears and laughter displayed that it accomplished its exact intention of displaying her life in 15 minutes. Though the reviews were extremely positive, I worked diligently to avoid that part of the room. I had worked very hard to remain strong for my family. Now was not the time to fall apart.
After a couple of hours, the church hall was nearly empty and people returned to their lives. Our kids made their way to their homes and I to mine. I both looked forward to and feared the alone time. The whirlwind of events from the return of her hateful disease to the memorial left my head swimming. Days and weeks intertwine into one as the events transpired so rapidly. During a brief pit stop at my in laws, the conversation went to the video and I confessed that I had made sure to not see it. Breaking down in public was not on the daily agenda. It was pointed out that the “public” was gone and it might do me some good to let some of the pent up emotions out. I left with the tape in hand not intending this to happen anytime soon. Bottling that crap up and filing it away is how I chose to handle these situations, if you don’t mind.
It was a beautiful spring day with dazzling sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. The windows were finally opened wide and fresh air filled the rooms. Getting out of the unfamiliar suit and tie was paramount to returning to a semblance normalcy and was the first order of business. Feeling far more comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt, I made my way to the front room and clicked on the TV. It had been over a week since I had paid much attention to the world around me and looked forward to a mindless viewing of Sports Center. Plopping my ass down in the recliner, I hoped to settle in for a couple of hours of vegging when suddenly the TV screen went blank. “Are you kidding me?” I asked my faithful canine companion Ace, hoping that he had a suggestion. Being a Direct TV subscriber, I was not unfamiliar with the “No Signal Found” message at the bottom of the screen. The only difference was that it typically came with a thunderstorm. I pulled up the proper troubleshooting screens and followed all the steps only to met wit the same message: “Signal Not Found.” As I went from room to room using my best problem solving skills, I also passed by the video tape resting on the kitchen table. I seemed to be drawn to it as if it were whispering louder and louder to me. Something was pulling me to it and finally relented. “I guess we’re supposed to watch this now.” I said to Ace placing the tape in the VCR.
The inevitable cry that came from the 2 viewings was cleansing. The rush of feelings: laughing at the happy memories and weeping at the more recent photos of her in pain but with a brave face felt oddly cleansing. Standing and hitting the eject button, I felt a calm that replaced the constant anxiety of the past months. While this was only a temporary feeling, it was a much needed relief. As I placed the tape back into its case, the screen once again displayed the “No Signal Found” message. That was fine with me. I needed to regroup. After reflecting silently for around 10 minutes, I walked down the long narrow hallway to splash water on my face. As I exited and turned the corner, the service returned to TVs and Sports Center blasted out of the speakers. I couldn’t help but smile. She was still with me.
Or was it just a coincidence?