Monday morning, everyone started their week as if it were any other: most people went to work, others dropped their kids off at school, I overslept...so, the usual. I got word of Deb's collapse the way a lot of shitty news seems to spread lately--via Facebook. I've known this family since 1980. Joel and Lauri adopted my favourite of our first batch of kittens--and let's not even discuss how I felt when their mom insisted they change his name from Hot Rod Kanehl (one of my mom's favourite baseball players growing up) to the more innocuous, dare I say even emasculating, Sunshine. We lost touch for a number of years when their parents divorced and their dad married Deb, but Joel and I reconnected when I moved back home after grad school (the first time). Joel was the first person I asked for when I woke up from my cancer surgery, since I'd already been wheeled past my dad who was pacing by the elevator, and that morning when we'd checked in, his dad was already parked in the chair in my hospital room. Remember when I got stranded in Denver (the first time) last winter when Ruby was dying and suddenly had no ride home from the airport at ridiculous o'clock p.m., and somebody's dad saw the Facebook post and drove all the way out to Newark past midnight even though he had to be at work at 5 the next morning? Yeah. That was Bob. They're that family. They always have been.
I knew they would bring Debby here to Doodlehem because we have the nearest Level One trauma facility and at that point they weren't sure what was happening to her or if she'd hit her head on the way down. I can hit the hospital in six minutes at a dead run; the only reason it took me twelve was because I detoured to Dunkin' Donuts to get Bob a cup of coffee the way I know he takes it: milk, sugar, from Dunkin' whenever possible, and in the largest size possible. The only other person waiting with Bob was the coworker who had performed CPR until the ambulance arrived. Joel was on his way up from Virginia and Bob's siblings hadn't gotten there yet either. I knew I was going in as the anchor, but I still wasn't really prepared to have to be Bob's. He had always been mine. Bob's a former Marine. He served in Vietnam. He also suffered a (non-military) traumatic amputation of his right arm when Joel was about a year old, the divorce from their mom, Deb's treatment for breast cancer the year before my own cancer, and his own bout with lung cancer surgery, and his courage and sense of humour never so much as wavered outwardly in the face of any of that. So I can't imagine the hell he must have been in for him to reach blindly for my hand the first minute we were alone and gasp out, I'm so damn scared.
By the time Joel arrived just after lunchtime they'd discovered that there had been an aneurysm that ruptured, causing a massive brain bleed, and they were trying to stabilize her for long enough between scans to find out if surgery would even be an option. Every update was worse news, and by Tuesday the decision was made to remove all life-sustaining measures and transfer Deb to palliative care. There's never any way to tell, but given the significant damage, no one was expecting her body to keep functioning longer than a few hours at maximum. Despite that, early Wednesday evening they transferred her to hospice care. Deb didn't take any shit from anybody, ever, and this was no exception. She was going to go in her own sweet time, and this wasn't it quite yet. Hospice told me later they hadn't expected her to live through the first night. Clearly they don't know our Debby.
Thursday, 12th September, was one of the most precious days of my life. Bob couldn't stand to be there anymore, and he had all manner of legal legwork to untangle and plans to start making. I had planned to stop in and sit until they returned, expecting them back any minute. One of Debby's work friends came by round supper time, and talked to her for a good hour--telling her all about Deb's favourite kids and what they'd done that day, and put sweet-smelling lotion on her hands and feet. We got a little bit to eat, but mostly we sat with her, and I listened. I'd never known Debby as well as I know the rest of her family; we probably hugged whenever we saw each other, but I felt uncomfortable touching her or holding her hand. Not because she was dying, but because it felt like an invasion of her privacy. I don't actually know whether she liked being touched, though as someone who worked for 30-something years with preschool-age kids, I can't imagine she wasn't at least comfortable with it. So part of me wondered what I was doing there. But mostly I felt someone needed to be there with her, someone she knew, in case any part of her was still there and needed us. After Marie left, we sat some more. Sometimes I read to her out loud--from Edgar Huntly, because that's what I was in the middle of that day--but increasingly I just sat there as the unexpectedly fierce thunderstorm bent the trees outside nearly double and rain rolled down the French doors in sheets.
By ten o'clock I was done my book and needing to at least stop home long enough to feed my cats. But also, something was changing. Deb was starting to breathe differently, taking long gasps of breaths followed by shorter, ragged breaths, evening out, then starting again. I knew this was one of the last changes. It wasn't painful for me to hear, so much as worrisome. I knew she was being medicated to alleviate any anxiety she may have been feeling, and I knew her breathing patterns were simply her body trying to regulate oxygen flow to her brain as the pressure from the bleed increased and spread down towards her brain stem. I knew she was trying to let go. But I also knew--don't ask me how, since I really didn't know her this closely--that she was hanging on because I was there. I knew this was something that was between her and the God she loved so fiercely, and she wasn't going to do it with an audience. My being there was only going to prolong this.
I will not tell you what I said to her as I kissed her forehead goodbye. I will only tell you that two hours later, the spark that made her Debby was gone.