(I wrote about the beginning of this leg of Jeff's journey in an earlier post, Grace)
When I got home this afternoon, I noticed my apartment still smells faintly of red meat seared in butter, sautéed onions and mushrooms, all the various aromas that are evidence of the last meal I will ever cook for Jeff. It still smells good.
Last night I fed Jeff the beef stroganoff and asked again, as I have about every other time I've seen him since he started on this particular odyssey, are you sure? are you ready? "Yes. More sure than ever," he told me and as I held the cup for him to drink, I noted he had mastered using the straw without aspirating. Then I forked up another couple of noodles and a chunk of meat heavy with sour cream-enriched sauce.
This morning I was up and baking cookies to take to Randell and Joey's, where we would gather to welcome Jeff home and participate in the service of Last Rites. I was late.
It was beautiful, the room: the gorgeous, large needlepoint worked by Jeff's grandmother was hung over the dresser, which was covered in pictures of Jeff and his children, his parents, his brother. Jeff in the hospital bed faced a wall of windows overlooking a natural, un-landscaped area with not another building in sight. It was lovely.
Jeff himself was in good form, being fed chocolate by everyone: Reese's peanut butter cups, dark chocolates and eventually one of my cookies, a new concoction of oats, cranberries and toasted pecans which turned out well enough for the maiden voyage of a recipe. There were approximately 18 - 20 of us and most are Episcopalians from the Dallas area; we like a party and there were already cookies and coffee, nuts, cheese and crackers laid out in the kitchen/family area. A kind neighbor delivered fried chicken with all the trimmings, so after the initial religious service we tucked into lunch.
Though we all choked up a bit during the Last Rites, there was still a lot of laugher, many jokes made at Jeff’s expense and I think he managed to hit each of us with some well-aimed shots of his own.
When it was time to remove the ventilator, we all gathered again around Jeff and most of us kissed him and told him we love him. Darren, the RN on duty, gave him a small dose of anti-anxiety and pain medications and I winked at Jeff from the foot of the bed. The doctor removed the ventilator and started an oxygen feed for comfort. Jeff was on his own and it was clear from the start it was going to be a struggle.
But there was no pain, and almost immediately I could see him losing color. The pain meds made him sleepy, and he struggled along for awhile, but I think we all knew 10% lung capacity was no match against Nature. The breaths became shallower and further apart. Someone led us in the Prayers of Commendation at the Time of Death. Shallower, and further and further. Darren listened to his chest, and told the other nurse, "39," which she dutifully wrote down (every medical procedure was precisely recorded, medications given by whom and how much, ventilator removed, oxygen started, vitals). Further and further. Jeff's daughter, Joanna, smoothed his hair and stroked his arm, his son knelt by the side of the bed and held his hand. Two of us at the foot of the bed patted his legs through the quilt St. Patrick’s prayer quilt ministry sent from Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
I prayed silently to God make it swift, while he's surrounded by love and can look down on us in benediction as he leaves this poor tortured shell behind. I whispered it's ok, it's ok, to Jeff but I don't know if he heard me. Darren listened again and told us, "he's gone now, I am so sorry for your loss" but what I thought was, he made it, he made it to the other side.
There were a lot of sniffles, many tears. Even the Hospice folks were wiping their eyes. One had told me earlier that they had all grown fond of Jeff in the time they had known him. Jeff was like that: he never knew a stranger and it was impossible to go anywhere with him without running into someone he had once known, gone to school or worked with, or with whom he couldn’t establish some sort of familial connection. It was like hanging out with a human version of the game Six Degrees of Separation.
We all took turns hugging Joanna, and I put my hands on my Godson's shoulders and hugged him. We had both been pretty tough until we saw each other crying, and he didn't argue when I handed him tissue. Everyone hugged each other, eventually, and we were all glad it had gone as Jeff wanted: surrounded by people who loved him, music he loved playing, and with dignity.
The Hospice people made necessary phone calls, and some folks left. Joanna mentioned hearing a lawnmower running somewhere in the neighborhood and thinking, “How dare you? How dare you go on with Life when my dad is dying,” which seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to think. She wondered what was waiting for her, emotionally; though she’d stood at his side as he left, it didn’t yet seem real. In two weeks or so, I told her, when most of the hullabaloo is over, it will hit you. At weird times, and in weird places. The Bereavement Counselor chimed in with, “And anything you feel is perfectly alright,” God bless him. That’s right, I told her. And later I said, you know where I am; you have my phone number.
Life moves forward and the guys putting gas in the Official Pace Car on the other side of the pump at the Wal-Mart gas station had no idea I fed my friend a cookie sometime around noon today, and watched him take his last breath approximately two hours later. Life moves forward, but my apartment still smells like the beef stroganoff I fed my friend less than twenty-four hours ago. I guess that’s a metaphor and perhaps an appropriate one for a man who loved food and to cook, loved life, loved his children, loved God. When in future I walk into a memory of him, I know it will bring a smile the way a good meal made with rich ingredients well-combined leaves it’s fragrance in the kitchen and makes one breathe deeply, and remember.