As so often happens here on Reasonably Well, I feel the need to begin my post with this disclaimer: I am not fabricating, exaggerating, or elaborating my account of the following event. It is true in every detail to the best of my recall.
So. Brace yourselves for one of "those" kind of posts. Y'all ready?
Last weekend, our parish celebrated the feast day of the saint for which we are named: St. Thomas Aquinas. The festivities always include a fundraiser dinner. This year's dinner menu included a sumptuous prime rib and crab dinner accompanied by a silent auction. One of the items up for bidding was a two-for-one offer on our church's cemetery plots.
Yes. You read that right. Hey -- two for the price of one is a great deal. Have you priced cemetery real estate lately? We're talking bargain basement prices here.
I thought his choice of wording was profound.
Father O., a very spiritual young man with a great sense of humor, has for the past several years made a sign (which I've tried to re-create above) and placed it prominently with the other auction items such as religious art pieces, home made goodie baskets and vacation weekends.
Cemetery plots are not usually hotly contested auction items. This year, however, things picked up considerably and the lucky winners were John and I. Yep. We are now the proud owner of two plots in a prime location in the Holy Cross Cemetery. Oh, yeah. Responsible planning adults, that's us. But I have not always been that kind of person.
For most people, a purchase like this is really not particularly earth shattering. People are born. People die. And when they die, if they would like to be buried, they need a place to do so and it usually goes like this: Find a cemetery. Pick out a spot. Buy the thing. Boom. Done.
I've had a really difficult time getting to the point in my life when I could discuss this sort of thing calmly and rationally. Previously, any discussion even remotely related to my death, or even more dramatically, John's death, typically would result in me sticking my fingers in my ears and singing some tuneless la-la-la song as I beat a hasty exit from the room. If John wanted to talk about a will, or our life insurance policies, or even show me where he has everything about our finances documented, I wanted to just run away. I am not kidding.
I'm not certain why. I believe that there is some kind of existence waiting for us after our soul leaves our bodies, and thinking about it doesn't provoke this response, and I don't think that I have anything other than the usual fear of my death specifically. So when John and I began a discussion about where we would like to be buried some day, and I found myself reflexively poking my index fingers in my ears, I decided that it was high time to explore and resolve my squeamishness about making some decision that dealt with the end of our lives. And I'm happy to report that after considerable thought, I have found a kind of peace about it all, and the memory of one person in particular eased the change in my thought process from cowardly to a tentative acceptance. I'm so thankful that I have this very old memory to recall when I needed it most.
Her name was Eloise and she was a sweet tempered, petite, elderly woman with a headful of fine curly white hair and a skeleton so fragile that transferring her from chair to bed could be enough to cause a fracture. Although her body was failing her mind was not, and she remembered accurately the names of each of us who cared for her back at that hospital in the late '70s. Eloise was hospitalized for a lengthy period of time and checking in with her as the rest of my patients were sound asleep became one of my favorite times of the night shift. Tucked into her bed with a crocheted throw covering the stark hospital linens, the harsh overhead lights turned off, and in the rosy glow of her favorite rosebud enameled bedside lamp with tasseled pink shade, she would pat the chair next to her bed and invite me to tell her everything about my day. Or my family. Or my new boyfriend. Or......anything other than the cancer that was taking her away from us far too quickly. I loved sitting there for those conversations -- and her.
As Eloise declined and became closer to her death, unbelievably she didn't lose any of her ability to speak with clarity even though her pain medication dose kept climbing. She was drowsy, yes, but each word was enunciated perfectly and carefully.
I'll never forget the night that she died. She had pushed her call button shortly after one of our visits during which I administered pain meds into her IV, rubbed her frail legs and arms with perfumed lotion, and settled her in for the night. Usually after our routine was completed she would doze off for three or four hours at a time, so I was surprised to see her call light blink twenty minutes or so after I had been in her room. Was she in pain? Had I forgotten something? I entered her room to see her sitting up in bed with sweet smile on her face.
"Oh, Julia. I'm so glad that you had time to stop in. I want you to meet my family. Isn't it wonderful that they're all here?" She made a sweeping gesture that indicated fully half of her room at the end of her bed.
"This is Julia, everyone. I shall miss her and all the other nurses."
I slid my hand over to her wrist without moving my eyes from her face and took her pulse. It was slow, but steady. She continued to smile at the ghostly gathering, so I directed my gaze down to her chest and counted the shallow but regular respirations, then to the empty space at the end of her room and said tentatively, So nice to meet you.
"I think they're here to take me home," she told me then turned again to look at her family. "Are you here to take me home?"
Her smile lost none of it's brightness as she weakly dropped back against her embroidered pillowslip then sighed happily.
"Have you come to get me on that beautiful white horse?" She closed her eyes.
I quickly glanced up. I found myself wishing that I could see what Eloise was seeing. Under the light pressure from my fingertips, I could feel her pulse begin to drift into a slow irregular beat and could hear her respirations become shallower. I pushed the call bell, and a co-worker poked her head in the door.
Nancy. I just want you to know that I'm going to spend some extra time here with Eloise tonight. Maybe for quite awhile. and gave my nursing assistant a meaningful look. Nancy was one of those intelligent and perceptive women that needed very few words to understand my message: Eloise was dying.
I don't know how long we sat together in peaceful silence, just she and I. I seem to remember that it wasn't a very long, or perhaps the experience was so comforting that time passed quickly. But at some point, she just wasn't breathing anymore, and her pulse stilled. Her lovely face turned that very unusual pale shade that happens after death and took on that unmistakeable look of something that was truly inanimate.
I sat for a few minutes before I summoned my co-workers to begin the chain of events that follow in a hospital after someone dies; wanting to find some explanation or meaning for the indescribable feeling that surrounded what I had just witnessed. I still can't find the right words to convey it all except to say that I knew I had been gifted with the privilege of the tiniest glimpse of what death looked and felt like for this amazing woman. I tucked that memory away, only to be found in difficult times when I find myself or others questioning the existence of a hereafter. And if I take time to quietly re-create as much of that episode in my memory as I possibly can, I find a peace of sorts which comforts me enormously.
So thanks, Eloise. Yesterday I smiled as I handed over the check for my own gravesite. I wouldn't have been able to do it without your help.