December 2, 2011
My sister-in-law, J., cooked Thanksgiving dinner this year. In the days before, she asked for her mother’s recipes for pumpkin and cranberry bread, and for cheese pie, worn sheets of paper stained from years of use. She spent several days with trial runs, never quite happy with how things turned out. When it was good enough, she took the loaves and carefully wrapped them the same way her mother had, and when she opened them at dinner, at my father-in-law’s, the pumpkin bread was dark and moist and just like her mother’s. Abigail declared the cheese pie (made from cottage cheese) better than Grammy’s.
The kids played with their cousins without any regard to what the adults were doing. My father- in-law would periodically point to something in the house and say that he wanted AJ or Joan to have it. “J. will take the china, it’s her grandmother’s china. But you guys should take the crystal,” he told us. This or that, he was already divvying everything up, divesting himself of what remains. He had gone to see Sue at Pennsburg Manor, and it was not one of her good days. J. had gone as well, with her husband Bill and their kids, and later when she returned to her parents’ house, she would periodically shut herself into the bathroom for long periods of time to cry.
In the Boteveg family, after Thanksgiving dinner Sue would put on a CD or two of Christmas music, and make Art pull out the first Christmas decorations, neither of which she would allow until after dinner was over. This year, we didn’t.
“She isn’t with us anymore,” Art said as we were leaving, and J. responded, “But she fights to try to be. You can see it, you can see her trying.”
But we didn’t see it, my husband didn’t want to go. We had taken the kids only once since she was placed in hospice, two weeks before. Sue sat with us in the tv lounge, dozing in her wheelchair, shriveling up inside herself. Since June, she had fought through chemotherapy and PET scans and doctor visits, but the cancer spread across her liver, a new mass in her lung, metastsis to the right femur, the left humerus, lymph nodes and mammary glands, and colon.
During that visit, even while dozing, she had gripped the edge of the table with both hands as strong as she could. The nurses told us she did the same thing in her bed, grasping the railings until she was white-knuckled. Once during that last visit, she had reached out with her right hand to pull at Art’s shirt, trying to find his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said to him. “I just need–”
He took her hand in both of his. “I understand. You need to hold on.” “Yes,” she nodded. “I need to hold on.”
Since then, she had fallen more into herself. During visits, Art would see that when she dozed, she stopped breathing, and he would wait to see if she would start again. Thanksgiving was not one of her good days, both Art and Joan agreed. And so at the end of the day, my husband and I, and the Girl and the Boy, got into our car and drove home. —
Saturday, I took the kids to the playground down the street so they could ride their scooters round and round on the basketball court. At one point, the Girl left her brother to ride himself dizzy in circles and sat with me on the bench. “Is Grammy going to die?”
“We don’t know, but soon.” She didn’t look at me, but just stared somewhere off to the side. “Do you want to go see her again?” I asked. Because I would take her i she did. “She mightnot know you’re there. But she might.”
The Girl shook her head. “No.” She has asked me before if I believe in God or in heaven, and I’ve told her and her brother that I don’t. That when you’re dead, you’re dead, and all that’s left is what other people remember about you. “No,” she said again.
This year, Thanksgiving was also Art’s and Sue’s 46th wedding anniversary. “I just want her to make it past midnight,” he had said, “so I don’t have this day in my head as the day she died.”
She held on.
Wednesday night, Art called and told my husband that Sue’s doctors thought she wouldn’t make it through the night. He had visited her, and her lips were tinged blue because she wasn’t getting enough oxygen. He didn’t want anyone to come up.
We were both awake at 4:30 on Thursday, waiting for a call that didn’t come. At 5:30, I gave up trying to get back to sleep and drove into the office to get some things I needed to work at home. I pestered my spouse probably too much to call his Dad, find out what was going on. In the evening, he finally called his sister. We went to bed still waiting.
The phone rang this morning at 7:55 a.m. Sue had passed away at 1:30 this morning. Finally, at the end, it was both gentle and quiet.
We didn’t tell the kids, even though they asked why I was staying home again. I don’t know if that was the right thing or not. I feel like we’re lying to them, but I didn’t want to send them off to school with that weighing on them. We’ve made phone calls, and my husband has left to go be with his Dad and sister while I try to finish an appellate brief that is due next week.
This weekend, the Girl has a birthday party to go to, the Boy needs a haircut. I have to pick up my dry-cleaning, and we have to order the geese for goose dinner, and we need to clean the living room so we can put up the Christmas tree.