Like most working people in the US, where Christian culture is majority culture, I’d been looking forward to a couple of days off at Christmas.
It’s not my holiday. But I get to partake of its best parts because Sweetheart’s family is a mashup of Lutherans, atheists who grew up as Lutherans & Catholics-by-choice. Sweetheart was nine when his parents split. From that point on, it was Christmas Eve with Mom and Christmas Day with Dad. That’s carried into adulthood, except now Dad is at the Mom celebration and Mom comes to Dad’s brunch. They’re what it looks like when you decide to stop letting the past get in the way of the present and learn new ways to be kind.
It makes those big life transitions so much easier. When First Husband died, Better Wife than I’d Been called me right away. (Unexpected, as BW adored FH and loved my children, but not so much me. I was fine with that – she didn’t have to be nice to me as long as she was good to them.) Together, we got the six combined kids (three apiece, ranging from 19-29) through that terrible time. At that point, I hadn’t spoken with First Husband’s father Sidney for about five years. But BW’s father was dying, and she’d just been widowed for the second time. She had her hands full. So I started calling Sidney every week to check up on him and let him know how his granddaughters were faring.
I was particularly worried because of Mrs. Sidney – I’ll call her Barbara. He’d married Barbara within a year of FH’s mother’s death when FH was 15. She had never warmed to Sidney’s children, and didn’t share his level of anguish. She wasn’t crazy for me either, but time passed. Things changed.
We’ve had lots of breakfasts and dinners together, a couple of Passover Seders (one that included BW & her family) and those weekly calls.
I’ve seen Sidney go downhill steadily since First Husband’s death.
This past June, he pulled Barbara down as she was trying to help him up after another of his increasingly frequent falls. Doctors diagnosed a brain tumor. They gave him two to six months. Barbara, who doesn’t drive anymore, found a nursing home nearby. She visited a couple of times a week and wondered aloud more than once what, if anything, either of them was getting out of those visits. My mother is in a nursing home here, and I see lonely people with no or infrequent visitors. It’s not pretty. I had a hard time understanding the way she was dealing with things until the day she told me she’d never seen anyone die before.
She’d never seen anyone die before?
She’s in her mid-80s. I feel very lucky to have seen people die. It’s made me much less anxious about the whole process.
Now, Sidney has given two of his granddaughters that gift.
The youngest, Talia, is a 27-year-old undergrad who works as a nanny. She lives about two hours from the nursing home. Since June, she’s been there every week when she’s not in school and every other week when she is.
On Tuesday, the evening before my first day of Christmas break, she called me at 9 p.m.
“Has anyone told you what’s going on with Grandpa?”
“Ummm…..no. What’s going on with Grandpa?”
“I’m in his room. He’s dying. Barbara called to tell me they said she needs to have a CNA in his room 24/7, so I told her to tell them I was coming down,” she said. Then she said something I knew she hadn’t told Barbara.
“There’s no way I’m going to let Grandpa die alone with a stranger in his room.”
I live a scant hour and a half from Sidney’s nursing home.
“Do you want me to come down?”
She burst into tears.
“Oh, Mommy! Would you?”
When I got there, he was actively dying (unconscious and in a state of possible semi-awareness). He was also agitated. I rousted the nursing staff when I found out that his last dose of morphine had been about two hours before.
I had Talia call Former Sister-In-Law, who was in from Texas and had taken off from her job to be there. (All I could think was – Lord, please don’t let him die with me in the room and NOT her). SIL and her lifelong best friend arrived at about 11:30. By 5 a.m., when they left to nap and shower before returning later in the day, Talia’s sisters had flights. Alex was coming in at 1 p.m. and Liza, who’d just seen him a week before, would arrive the next night.
Barbara showed up at about 8:45. The Hospice Nurse was there and told her she might want to tell him that it was okay for him to go.
She sat by him. She took his hand and said, “You’ll be in a better place, and we will all be okay.”
Then we went out for breakfast. She offered to split the bill. I didn’t let her.
I dropped her back at her place for a hair appointment (she lives in one of those all-inclusive assisted living complexes), hit up the grocery store for some provisions (a box of clementines, some grapefruit soda, a green plant) and headed back with food. Talia ate the to-go breakfast I’d gotten her and took off to fetch Alex from the airport.
We were alone for a bit.
I told Sidney that we’d all be okay and I’d keep up the weekly calls to Barbara. I played my guitalele and sang a bit for him, and then Vicky the Hospice Nurse, who turned out to have a great voice, showed up. We harmonized on songs we couldn’t remember the words to and told Sidney we were worth every penny he was paying us.
I also told him that for a man whose stock lines included “I’m not big on long goodbyes,” he sure seemed to be stretching this one out.
Then, I remembered that I had Mandy Patinkin singing Yiddish songs on my iPad (Sidney was a big fan of Yiddish songs). So I put that on for him. Alex & Talia arrived, then Cathy. When my daughter-in-law Abbi showed up a little after 3, it was okay – better in fact – for me to head out. The room wasn’t that big and at that point I was just extra baggage.
I sat beside him. I gave him a kiss.
“I’m not big on long goodbyes,” I told him.
Then, I made my way back to Milwaukee, exhausted but just in time for Christmas Eve with the in-laws.
Talia called at 8 to tell me Sidney had died, with Alex and Talia each holding one of his hands, Cathy with her hands on his head and Abbi sitting nearby.