Laura died in the early hours of the morning of Saturday, January 30, 2010. Here is the story of the night of January 29-30, 2010..
As sedated as she was, Laura was still aware of what was going on. Laura’s mother, father, brothers, and sister had all come to be with her. As her practical nurse Jane Wood left for the weekend earlier on Friday afternoon, I said to her, “See you on Monday.” She had been through many deaths, and said, “Probably not.” No wonder Laura liked her. Another no bullshit, no false hope woman.
On the evening of Laura’s last night, we all gathered around her. Laura had been on morphine since the Sunday before and was sleeping continuously. She had stopped eating and drinking the day before. She had not shown any signs of recognizing people when they spoke to her. Yet, when Anne Mei started practicing, recognition flashed across her face. She started to open her eyes. She looked as if she were saying to herself, “That’s right. Keep it up.”. We all saw it.
Since the Sunday before, Anne Mei had been sleeping on a small bed next to Laura’s hospital bed. I switched from that small bed to a couch at the foot of Laura’s bed. It had helped Anne Mei to sleep with her mother when Laura was first diagnosed. Sleeping near her now also comforted Anne Mei.
About 4:30 am Saturday morning, I woke and checked on Laura. It was time for her morphine dose. I wet her lips. Then I talked with her until about 6 am. It seemed to me that she was breathing lightly, but I kept putting my ear close to check. For the last two months, I had been getting up two or three times a night with her. Sometimes she had wanted to watch TV. Sometimes she wanted me to read to her. Once she even wanted me to do taiji in the bedroom while she went back to sleep. But that morning was the longest time I just talked. Then I went back to sleep and woke up around 8 am.
At 8 Laura seemed to be sleeping the same as she had been around 6 am. Her sister Julie came to check on her as I went out to make coffee and tea. Julie came right back out and said that she didn’t think Laura was breathing. I said she looked like she had earlier this morning. Laura’s brother Paul, a physician, came in and confirmed that her heart had stopped. Anne Mei woke up just as more adults started gathering around her Mom. She heard what Paul said and started to cry. I went over to hold her.
Was Laura alive during the 90 minutes I was speaking to her earlier that morning? I’ll never know for sure. I would like to believe that she was alive and that she felt my presence or even heard my words. But, as Sister Aloysius says at the end of Doubt, “I have doubts! I have such doubts!” My doubts about when Laura died are more wishful than the painful doubts of Sister Aloysius. Wishful, but not very pleasant. I wanted her to have been there and aware that I was with her in her dying moments
Deep down I don’t think I ever expected Laura to get better. I just didn’t think she would die. That’s why at the end I was the only one who thought she was still breathing. During the time I spent with her in the early hours of that morning, I told her over and over that Anne Mei and I would be ok. I said that we would miss her terribly, that she didn’t have to worry about our physical or financial well-being. I told her that she didn’t have to hold on for us. She could let go. Nevertheless, I did not expect that she actually would.
Or had. I didn’t talk too loudly because Anne Mei was in the bed right next to me. I held Laura’s arm and stroked it. I even gave her a morphine dropper during that time. Was she already dead? Was that when she died? We’ll never know.
What did Laura experience as she died? How did she experience it? Joan Didion asked if her husband experienced “the ‘moment of terror’ the “eternal dark’?” Did Laura feel fear, terror, sadness, regret, frustration, continued worry about Anne Mei and me? Or nothing? Was she too zonked out on morphine and fentanyl? Are these skillful or healthy questions? They certainly don’t alleviate her suffering. I’ll never know the answers. What difference would it make now if I did? I was able to do something about her list of dying wishes. I could not do anything that morning about her inability to express her feelings at the end, and most certainly I cannot now that she’s gone.
Throughout Laura’s illness, I felt as if I was just putting one foot in front of another to get to the next milepost. This focus on the task at hand could also be a way not to look up and around at what was happening to us. That Saturday morning I knew Laura was close to death. I knew it from living and sleeping next to her constantly for the last two months of her life. I knew it from what the hospice nurse had said on Friday afternoon, and what Paul had explained about what the nurse meant. Yet, I woke up that Saturday morning, kissed Laura on the forehead, greeted Julie as she came in the room, and set off to prepare coffee and tea as if it was just going to be another morning in our vigil for the dying. Even when Julie said that Laura wasn’t breathing, I couldn’t believe it until Paul had confirmed it. Why? Because I didn’t want to stop “doing what has to be done” for Laura. I had become attached to one kind of “doing what has to be done,” and didn’t want to believe that it was over, that there were new, unknown things to be done.