"Oh Angie," she cries as she realizes I'm there. "I want you to hold me." "How you doing?" I ask, my hand smoothing the hair on her head. "Not good," she strains. "Are you ready?" "No, I don't want to die." Her eyes, childlike, search my face for what I don't know. "Are you scared?" She contemplates that one and responds, "A little." "Are you at peace?" "I think so," she manages. Hillary scoots back her chair allowing me to access the side of the bed. Bonnie's belly is swollen and heavy. Blood stains her gown near her left shoulder where a port was put in earlier that day. I climb up on the bed, careful not to put pressure on the arm where an albumen infusion is replacing the fluids she lost hours ago from the parecentesis. I rest my arms around her and lean my head against hers. She is breathing heavy. Her body is warm warm. She hasn't been warm for months, but on this day her body is working harder than ever . . . to die I suppose. For a few minutes she is gentled, comforted, but the pain in her back is working again and she has to move.
The LNA and nurse come in and I kiss her translucent cheek and get out of the way. They manage to pull her further to the right side of the bed and turn her ravaged body on its left side, the only position that seems to give her any relief. Her head lays cockeyed on the pillow, her jaw slack and mouth open to catch the air. The LNA gently lifts her head with two hands and places it in a more comfortable, natural position. They tuck pillows in tightly against her back and between her legs. The skin on her right leg is still red from the lingering cellulitis. The other calf has blood seeping into the tissues-symptoms of a low white cell count. It is red and beginning to swell about her toes.
"I'm going!" she lifts her head from the pillow looking intently around for who is sitting within arm's length. "Right now . . . Goodbye." Her head falls down on the pillow. A few moments pass, her breathing deep and effortful, she opens her eyes again and mouths, "Bye." "I love you," I call as if she's leaving on an airplane vacation trip to somewhere. I caress her warm, fragile hand. I run my thumb along her soft, short cropped hair. She has a cool washcloth resting on her neck, the soak stain blooming down along the front of her hospital gown. I notice a small collection of dark purple arteries near the skin on her right cheek. Another bulging artery runs down from her lip along into her jawline. Were these there before? Is this the evidence of her failing liver and kidneys slowing down her bloodflow, bulging in her veins. I try to sing to her, but no songs come to mind. I start to hum, "Allelujia, Allelujia, Allelujia." I think she recognizes it. I bow my head to will back the tears threatening to consume me. "Keep humming, just keep humming."
Over the next hour and a half, she's in and out of awareness. She opens her eyes, the panicked look fading as she recognizes who is near. This is our last time together. I only know it now. Her pastor is there, comforting her with prayers and asking her if she can rest. He's trying to console her. He tells us later that he thinks it will be a day or two given her agitation. "Do you think he's strong enough to watch me die?" she asks Dale about Alfred. "I think so," Dale replies. "We'll take care of him," I tell her. Alfred has been taking care of her for months, on his own really. We've helped when we could, but he's the one who has been there for every ambulance ride to the Emergency Room, every procedure, every doctor's visit. He's the one who made sure she had something to drink and fixed her meals. He helped her to the bathroom and to the chair. He's here now. Just waiting, knowing that she's leaving him now.
Bonnie was so afraid of having the port procedure. Vickie wonders if she knew on a deeper level that her time card was being punched. After the parecentesis, there was usually a period of extreme weakness, but once she had the albumen, she would begin to rally. This time, the doctors told her there was no more chemical support they could provide. Her body had simply had enough. Her heartbeat was erratic, jumping from 34 to 134 in mere moments. The heart could not last much longer given the extreme levels of potassium in her body and her dwindling sodium levels. The news seemed to deflate her. She had been dying for so many years, now that the time was near. I expected her to want to pray, to want her Bible and to be reaching for God. Dale's presence provided comfort, yes, as he prayed with her she seemed to relax, if only for a minute. "I keep getting there and something is pulling me back," she tells Dale. Does she need permission to go? "Do you know what it is?" he asks her but she's gone again. "Bonnie, do you think that if we could take care of the pain, that you would be able to sleep?" "Oh yes," she's awake again.
As the pain increases, she becomes more and more agitated. "I'm going to die from the pain," she cries out. "Help me. Right now. Right now." Eventually amidst her begging for help that I can't give, I call the LNA in and the nurse. Together they talk her through the quarter hour as the medicine machine is wheeled in, plastic tubing detangled, a small palm-sized bag of clear fluid hung and calibrated to deliver the correct dose of pain-killing Phentonal. She quiets, sinks into her pillow, anticipating the relief that's sure to arrive soon. At last her breathing turns a little deeper. Her face relaxes and she appears to sleep, finally. She hasn't slept or eaten much in two days. She's exhausted, in pain, and afraid. She needs to rest.
We sat with her for another hour as the nursing staff prepare her private room. I guess it will be her death room. She rouses briefly as the pain intensifies, but I trepidatiously push the pain killer button and she dips back to unconsciousness. When we move her to the third floor, Room 335, the nurses set Alfred up to stay the night. He wants to be with her at the end. They offer us a comfort tray of coffee and cookies, but we decline. Alfred just needs a cot and he'll be fine. He would stay to rub her legs, to call the nurse to turn her, to hold her hand and reassure her. We need to leave, but don't really know how to. I don't remember what Brett did. I still think I was not believing her body would give in to death. I had seen her cheat it so many times. I didn't know this time was different. I kissed her warm cheek and told her I loved her. Those were the last words she heard from me. That's good. That's good. I am happy that she heard me tell her many times that I loved her. Although she could be difficult and her own worse enemy, I really did love her. I didn't want her to suffer anymore.
The next morning at 9:00. The phone rings. It's Hillary. "It's time. You've got to come." I quickly showered, hollering to the girls to get dressed and ready to go out the door. I call Mom to see if she can tend the girls. I'll have to bring the kids there as Dad is getting ready to go grocery shopping. She calls me back in a few minutes to say that Dad will take his truck. "Can you meet me at the school? I'll get your laptop for you so we have it this week." It is vacation week and I want to teach Mom how to use her new toy. Twenty or so minutes later we're in the car, heading up the hill, tears keep rolling out of my eyes and falling off my cheek. I have to wipe them away in order to put the key in the ignition. It's raining and cold. I adjust the car's blower to blast the windshield with heat and pull out of the bumpy drive. At the top of the first hill, as I round the bend near the log cabin a tree removal crew has the road completely blocked. Three orange traffic cones spread across the road. Two men are picking up long branches and feeding them into a chipping machine attached to the bucket truck. I thought about shouting out the window, "This is life or death!" but what good would that do. So I thought, "This is a lesson. To stop. To breathe. To remind myself that this is out of my control." Now I know that she was taking her last breaths at that time. I was sitting in the car with my children. Whitney started singing a made up song. Sydney was watching me. They had the road cleared in five minutes. "Where are you going?" she asked me. "You know Gramma is really sick." I look back at her to be sure she understands. I can't bring myself to tell her that Gramma's dying. I can't find the words for that. I can't answer her questions about that now. "Oh," she says. Mom is not at the school when I arrive and David is heading out the door to go run errands. I just barely caught him. "My mother in law is dying," I tell him, not sure why I felt the need to share the drama of my life. We head back into the school and I explain that I am heading to the hospital. He's been through this a bit recently with his father and grandmother. Judy meets us in the hall to talk with him. She's asks how my conferences went. "Okay." While David fiddles with the laptop and fills me in on what he's done to update the system, I eye the clock. "So get this," I tell Judy and David the story of the tree crew. "I guess I am okay with not being there. There's nothing I can do."
By the time I got on the interstate, I could really look at the time, it was 10:24. Would I get there in time? I didn't think about her really being gone. I didn't think about what I might see when I got there. I just thought about the death rattle and the endless pauses between her final breaths. She'd told me about these things. She'd been around a lot of death. She had told me about when her brother Lisdon died and the pain his body endured. She had sang her friend Bertha across with "Amazing Grace" and held her dying body to its final breaths. She knew what a body did in the end.
Mike was coming out of the unit doors as I approached. "Is she still here?" He nodded. I couldn't quite remember where her room was. The desk, the room suites all looked the same. Then I noticed "335" and knew I had the right door. I walked in. I see Bonnie, on her right side now, chin slack, right hand poised by her face as if to be held. Al's sitting in the chair at the head of her bed. The grey palour to her skin is unmistakable. I know I am too late, but Brett has to tell me to make it real. "She's gone," Brett said. Vickie's eyes are bright with tears. I walked to the bedside and touch that skin, soft and smooth as a newborn's. It was cool. She'd been so warm the night before. I was glad for that because the last year she was constantly cold.
"Now she knows the secret," Vickie said. "The secret?" "Yeah, what happens when you get to the other side."