Thursday, April 25, 2024

After Saturday night…

Jane slipped away, dying on a Saturday night while we surrounded her bed in the hospital emergency department. In what feels like a parallel universe, our parishioners, at the same time, were saying reader’s vespers next to my binder and books that I had set out for the all-night vigil the day before. They should have finished their work at the same time she did, and we all quietly retreated back to our homes. The next day, exhausted, dehydrated, and brittle, we forced aching bodies out of bed too early, and we headed to church, feeling like hung-over party-goers scraping themselves together after a wild Saturday night on the town. There is a fog that surrounds the first few days after death, and every death feels like the first death as we feel our way through the days and nights. Order is good. Structure is good. It is important to not let the pieces fall too far apart because they will only be harder to put back together.

Monday’s child is fair of face. My mother-in-law was born on a Monday in a small Kansas town where her father was a farmer and local surveyor. One of the gifts of dementia is that early memories become stronger, like flowers that thrive in the sun and air when the weeds are cleared away. She remembered things we had never heard about before and shared them readily. She told us about the time the tax man came by and spoke to a very young Jane, and she revealed the unreported and untaxed cows that were kept in the barn. When her father went to punish her, she plainly asked if he was telling her that lying was ever appropriate. He had to let it go.

She grew up across the road from the Emporia Zoo, and one time, for reasons she never understood, the monkeys escaped the zoo, and they ran to their farm and took up residence in their barn. The cow was terrified and ran away. It had to be hunted down, but it would not return readily. She remembered the first day of first grade when she walked herself to school, something seven-year-old children did back in the early 1950s. On that day, she met her lifelong best friend. It turned out that Jane had walked to the wrong school; she was meant to go to the other, but she refused, not wanting to leave behind Janetta, somehow knowing this was someone who would become so important to her. The teacher spanked her. Jane refused to switch schools. They spoke to her parents, but they told the teacher she would have to give in because Jane would never. The teacher relented because no amount of spanking would convince Jane.

Jane had complex dementia, there were several causes. What they were mostly doesn’t matter except for one: she had vascular dementia. This form has a very low life expectancy, most sufferers die from stroke on average only five years after symptoms begin. Jane lived for four. We always knew that she could die at any time and that strokes often don’t give warnings. We knew this but also did not. We expected our life with her would continue the way it did for years. We had plans. We had short-term ones and long-term ones and lists of things we wanted to do over the summer. We would not have the summer. We did not know that this would be her last day, the Saturday morning that began with breakfast and laughter and ended up with quiet tears.

I was her daily caregiver. It would not have been appropriate for her son to help her with bathing and dressing and bathroom chores, so I did it. No one made me. I wanted to do it. I begged her for two years to move in with us, and she relented. I know that there was nothing I did to convince her. Jane had to decide because no one could make that woman do anything she did not want to do. My husband was cautious. He did not want to put me in a position like this; he did not want me to feel obligated, but I did feel obligated because I loved her. I loved Jane for the person she was when I met her, when she welcomed me into her family, and I loved her for the person she was becoming as pieces of her fell away, and I loved her for the person she might become when dementia would filter her essence.

I spent hours moving through her routine with her and sitting with her while she ate. I brought hand sewing and knitting with me, and I sat with her, but the real work was silent and still. It was the hours of being present with no words so that the most important things could be said and felt and pondered. My husband has always said that it takes an investment of many long, boring hours of nothing before the real words come out, and he is right. I heard so many stories. So many lost moments were found, and I hold them in my heart. I was devoted to Jane, and as time passed, she leaned on me and into me. I always told the doctors and nurses that Jane was my best friend and that we went everywhere together. She was my best friend, but I was not her best friend, that was Janetta, and I was not one of her children. I was something else and she was devoted to me in a way that escapes definition. When she was in the hospital eleven months ago with a mini-stroke, the nurses and doctors promised they would take care of her and told me to go home. She asked me to stay with her, so I did. I slept in a chair next to her bed and held her hand all night.

On Saturday, the day that she died, she suffered a massive stroke, and as her brain filled with blood, she lost the ability to interact with us. I watched her slip away slowly, retreating to a place that I could not follow. I sat with her, spoke to her, and promised help was coming, and she reached for my hand. I will never, ever forget that moment. I watched her shaky hand reach out for me, and I clung to it in desperation. I felt like we were sinking, and if I held on, I could hold us together. We waited for the ambulance together while my son drove to the end of our quarter-mile driveway to guide them. The rest of the children crowded the windows, willing it to appear.

The doctor believed it would be less than twenty-four hours before Jane died, so she was not transferred upstairs but instead to a large, private room where they wheeled in a refreshment cart with coffee and water bottles and snacks and so many boxes of tissues, which were somehow not enough. They had prepared us for a different kind of all-night vigil, and we pressed in around her. She passed in just minutes, and we were unprepared. Everything had been set out for the work of the night, and now it was over, and these were left unused. Meanwhile, our parishioners fumbled through a shortened version of the service, not really sure what to do with my stacks. Instead, they turned to the horologian and tried to piece it together from there, leaving my books on the stand next to them. Saturday night was over. Our work was finished. All was quiet and still, and it was time to go home and prepare for what would come next.

I am unsettled and disjointed. Everywhere around me are things that Jane left behind. I see her favorite crochet throw made by a friend. Her favorite ice cream fills my freezer. Her Bible is still next to her bed. Her beloved Gospel albums are unplayed. My time is filled with preparing for her funeral, but I always feel like I am forgetting something because I keep feeling like it is time for medicine or blood pressure or a visit with my knitting in my hands. Even though there is no one there in her chair, I feel the need to check that she is there. My husband has a recliner next to her spot, and he went and just laid down and took a nap in it. He has been struggling to sleep, but for a brief respite, he was sleeping, and we moved quietly around him so that he could have this time. Maybe for a moment, he felt like he was holding her there next to him, in the magical chair that always made him fall asleep, resting with her instead of sinking.  

I know what happens after Saturday night. After the night comes the dawn and the morning and Sunday and the Resurrection. Monday’s child is fair of face, and my beautiful mother-in-law died on a Saturday evening so she could be ready for the Resurrection on Sunday.

You can read this post about Jane and me and our dementia journey together here.

You can read Jane's obituary here.