I wanted to write about Janet’s last few days before the memories fade like delicate colors in the sun or the edges of objects in waining daylight. This post has been in draft mode for several months, undergone numerous revisions and will likely be revised again as I remember various points.
During the week Janet was in hospice, she said on three separate occasions “I want to go.” What an incredible forward looking statement. It wasn’t “I want to die.” or “I’m ready to die.” It was “I want to go.” The day before she died, she said “I want to go before they get here.”, referring to the impending visit by some of her family and out-of-town friends.
We had made it as clear as possible last Fall that Janet was facing a battle with the grimmest odds yet. No one we had known, met or read about had survived the predicament Janet was in. A month later, our good friend Linda would die from the very same complications Janet was dealing with. Getting the idea across to family was difficult because Janet had pulled this trigger several times in the past and ended up pulling through. Almost like crying “wolf”, but not quite. My sense was the family wasn’t completely sold on the idea this was going to be a problem. Can’t say I fault them for thinking this. I certainly knew that if anyone was going to fight in face of such odds, it was going to be Janet. And she did. Nonetheless, we made the call to family that if they wanted to see Janet while she was reasonably comfortable and available, now was the time. The family answered the call and each of her brothers, some of their family and her parents made the trip to Denver.
These visits, spread out over several weeks, merit their own story some time in the future. Suffice it to say there was a subtle stress about that time spent with family. What they didn’t know was the tremendous emotional struggle Janet was engaged in, almost the worst I’d seen. She was also in a great deal of pain. It was so bad, by the end of the day, after family had left, she would be crying. For the most part, she contained her anger and frustration when with her family and managed to present herself as being comfortable. She wasn’t containing her emotions because she was being polite, but because these emotions were not directly related to her family. She would express these emotions away from family and friends. Together, we would try and talk through them, perhaps go for a walk or she would sit down for a session of “anger writing,” as she called it. Unfortunately, there were occasions when she could not contain her feelings and some of her anger and frustration would be directed at family. She later regretted this.
The purpose of calling for visits last Fall was that Janet didn’t want any wailing death bed scenes. While in hospice, Janet was making phone calls to family and saying goodbye. “I love you to pieces.”, was a phrase I remember hearing her say often. “Take care of your self and your family.” Nonetheless, several family members were making efforts to visit her in hospice. (I had arranged for home hospice care. I wanted Janet to die at home, surrounded by her things, in her house, with her friends, plants, pictures, music and puppies.) “I want to go before they get here”, and she meant it.
On the day she died, sometime shortly after the sun had risen so I’m guessing it was around 6:00 AM, Janet decided to go for a walk. I had managed to nod off to sleep, but something woke me up and the first thing I remember was throwing the covers back and flying across the bed to catch her before she fell to the floor. She had decided to go to the bathroom and successfully, if somewhat wobbly, made it to the commode by the time I caught up with her. Then I noticed she didn’t have her oxygen on. Another flying dash to the bed to grab the nasal cannula and get her back on oxygen. Her eyes were wide open and her pupils dilated. She was very unstable, moving like someone who was very, very drunk. I tried to lift her and carry her back to bed. My back was too bad and her muscle tone too flaccid to carry her. “Come on baby, I need your help. I can’t carry you today.”
Somehow, she rallied and we headed back to the bed. Along the way, I muttered a few choice expletives in regards to her dashing across the room without waking me and without her oxygen. She stopped in her tracks, looked me right in the eye and said in that all too familiar breathless voice “I don’t want those to be the last words I hear from you!” Apologizing profusely, I said “I just didn’t want to have to tell people you died on the toilet.” We both laughed, I tucked her in, kissed her and told her I love her more than life.
An few hours later, our friend Therese arrived. Friends had been generously offering their time to sit with Janet while I tended to other matters like feeding the dogs, taking a shower and occasionally grabbing a bit to eat (The week Janet was in hospice, I lost 15 pounds.) Around 9:25 AM, Therese hurried down to the kitchen where I had begun munching on a piece of toast. “Greg, Janet took her oxygen off!” In Therese’s words:
Janet seemed much more comfortable this morning than she had been the night before. Her breathing was still a bit labored. I just sat down next to her on the chair and chanted my tone, so as not to disturb her if she was sleeping. I honestly don’t remember if I gave her a prayer communion or not at this point. There was so much light in the room and it was so clear to me the travellers as well as lots of angels were there to welcome her on her next journey. As I sat there I kept getting a “message” to give her. After Greg had taken his shower and checked in, he went back downstairs to have something to eat. I kept getting the message and that I needed to say it while it was just Janet and myself in the room. So I said to her, ” Janet I know you know this, but the Travellers are here and they are ready to take you whenever you want to go.” At that point she opened her eyes, looked at me, sat up and took off her oxygen and said “Gregory”. I ran downstairs to let him know she had taken it off.
Janet had taken her oxygen off several times during the week she was in hospice. I figured it was sort of a dry run. For the past 18 months she had been slowly suffocating and being out of breath was the constant. The way Janet did most unpleasant things was to, as she said, “lean into them.” I watched her do this many times in many areas of her life – business, health, family. I learned to respect how she went about this and sought ways to support her process – emotionally, financially, spiritually – what ever it took. There would invariable be some magical point at which she would commit. When this happened, look out! There was no stopping her. Sometimes to a fault, she wouldn’t quit. I watched this process for 55 chemotherapy treatments, 34 radiation treatments, 3 major surgeries, uncounted alternative and complimentary therapies, a major medical malpractice lawsuit, a non-profit corporation startup and authoring a book.
When I entered the room and saw Janet, I recognized the moment. She was committed to making her transition. I sat next to her on the bed, held her hands, looked into her eyes, kissed her, told her I loved her and wished her “Peace be the Journey.” Therese had remained at the doorway to the bedroom. I nodded to her to have a seat and suggested now would be a good time to “call in the light,” as they say in MSIA. Janet struggled for a few minutes and began to relax back against the pillows that had been propped up behind her (the week in hospice, Janet rarely lay flat, it was too uncomfortable and difficult to breath.) She was leaving. Her gasps for breath became more and more infrequent and the pulse in her neck was more and more difficult to see. I asked Therese to hand me the stethoscope on the bedside table. It was of no use. I couldn’t hear anything. A few more quick, shallow gasps and she was gone. After asking Therese for some time alone with Janet, I brushed my hand over her eyes to close her partially open lids, kissed her forehead and cried. Best guess, it took about 10 minutes. I still cannot believe she is gone and I was there to witness her remarkable transition.
A short time later Therese told me what had transpired in the moments before Janet stopped leaning into death and took the step. The affirmation to Janet, “The Travellers are here and they are ready to take you,” was right in line with Janet’s spiritual beliefs and was the last piece she needed to make the step. It was perfect what Therese said – the timing, the words, the intention. It wouldn’t have meant the same coming from me because my spiritual path does not follow the teachings of MSIA, the path for Janet and Therese. And so what Therese said carried greater credibility. It was also perfect because I couldn’t have said it. Deep down, I wasn’t ready to let go of Janet. This last hold would have prevented me from saying something that would have encouraged her to begin her transition.
Early in hospice, I suggested to Janet some sort of transition ceremony, perhaps, in keeping with her faith, a prayer communion. She agreed and I made the call to Therese to arrange for the names of MSIA ministers requested by Janet to be placed on a call list for when she passed. The goal was to have as many as possible make the trip to the house as soon as possible after Janet’s passing and give a transition ceremony. Hospice would not be notified until after this ceremony was complete. As I was arranging Janet’s body into something I presumed would be comfortable, lying flat with her hands folded across her heart, Therese was busy with the phone calling ministers on the list. They quickly began to arrive. Some were more than an hour away so the early arrivals gathered next to Janet’s body for silent prayer. Again, in Therese’s words:
[A]fter Janet transitioned, I made the phone calls to the minister’s who Janet had wanted to come for her last prayer communion. All but one made it on a Friday morning, which is pretty amazing. As we were waiting for some of the last ones to arrive, someone noticed that it was all females who were in the room and we were standing/sitting around our soul sister. It was so sweet and so perfect. Even though there were tears, there was so much light and laughter too, because we all knew that Janet would be the first one making a wise crack.
Unplanned, I set myself to the task of removing every God damned piece of medical crap from the room – narcotics, IV equipment, supplements, homeopathics, syringes, heating pad, special support pillows, emesis basin, commode, oxygen tubing – all if it. Out of the room. I opened the windows and let in a cool, but pleasant, early spring breeze. The sunlight filling the room was brilliant. The ministers were busy lighting candles one of them had brought.
I went downstairs to sit for a while and struck up a conversation with Dani, one of the ministers. While we were talking the most wonderful laugher was rolling out of the bedroom, down the stairs and into the kitchen. It wasn’t nervous laughter. It wasn’t forced, contrived or otherwise compromised. And it was more than one person. If I had to say, I’d say everyone up in the bedroom next to Janet’s body, probably 9-10 ministers by this time, was laughing. It was the kind of laugher that happens among good friends over dinner, a sweet release of joy and an unadulterated expression of happiness. I smiled to hear that. This morning could not have unfolded better for Janet’s transition. Love, light and laughter – it was all there.
[Last edited: 2005.08.13]