We held the door open for a miracle, but none came. At least not in the hoped-for form. That’s the thing with miracles, they don’t necessarily obey orders.
I meant to ask David if there was a significance to the director’s chair in the pathway to the front door. I don’t remember if it was there when I arrived in the afternoon yesterday. I do remember stepping around it on the way to my car at 11:30 last night. It seemed a little like the cup for Elijah. But who were we waiting for? Leila to come back and sit on it?
I last saw her last week, on Thursday. The day the miracle workers came. The day of anointments. On Friday she was supposed to go home, to begin hospice. I got a message from someone that she would be staying in the hospital through Monday. That she wanted some time to absorb what had happened during the healings. Especially that last one with the monk, where he’d wrapped her in the mantle of a modern saint, crossed her forehead, eyes, cheeks, throat, and heart with sacred oils, prayed over her for 35 minutes in four languages.
I heard she wanted things to be all set up and ready for her. That she needed to rest and didn’t want visitors. I called her home and left a message to let her know I was aware of the schedule and thinking of her. So I was surprised when the phone rang Saturday morning and it was her.
I was almost out the door, with the grandparents, and Scott and Jonah, all of us bundled up and ready to head out to Tilden Park to ride the Steam Train. Leila was talking slowly, as she has done now for weeks, what with all the narcotics and the exhaustion of illness. She informed me she’d come home because the insurance wouldn’t cover her hospital stay anymore. They don’t have a line item for rest and contemplation.
I told her I was glad she was home and that I had to go. That I would talk to her later. How many times I’ve said that in these last six weeks of rollercoastering in and out of hospitals, towards and away from the brink of death? Why did I need to be so many other places? There simply is never enough time, never enough “laters.”
Sunday morning I called and left another message. I wanted to get her blog passwords, so I could use a service that turns blogs into books, for the kids. A few minutes later, she called. But not necessarily because I had called. One of those crossed wires moments. She fumbled who she was calling at first. “Johnny?” — “Julie,” I reminded her.
The hospital bed wasn’t working right and they couldn’t get it fixed because they had to go off hospice in order for her to be able to get one more procedure. A catheter that would drain the fluid from her tumors, paracentesis. A procedure she’d been traveling to San Francisco to receive once a week, to relieve the pressure. She was angry, frustrated.
She’d felt so sick in the night, she was shaking, she told me. Her husband wouldn’t let her call 911. “I was ready to let go,” she said. Whatever I said back was clearly insufficient because next she shouted at me, “THAT’S A REALLY BIG DEAL!”
She and her husband were sleeping on the sofa bed in the meantime. The old sofa bed that she’d slipcovered, but they’d had to take the slipcover off to open it out. She wanted to know if I might help her get a new sofa bed. Would IKEA deliver?
At this point David got on the phone and asked me to please not go buy them a sofa. He’s familiar by now with my tendency to take Leila’s requests and run with them. The toilet paper, the moisturizer, the pajama pants. But I assured him I wasn’t going to buy them a sofa. He explained that 911 wasn’t an option anymore. “Unless she breaks a limb, I have all the medications she needs here.”
I knew other friends were going to visit her that day, so off I went again into the swirl of grandparent and toddler time. On Monday when I called, she was too tired to talk. Or was that Tuesday? Yes. I’d waited till the grandparents left. A flurry of emails that day confirmed that Leila’s MFA professor and friend had offered to edit and publish her novel and Leila accepted.
On Wednesday, I went over to the house. A woman with long red hair and hazel eyes answered the door, a friend of Leila’s from almost 30 years ago, college and her New York period. Eva had flown up from L.A. for the day. Leila was asleep. Eva was cleaning out the refrigerator. Together we made a big pot of spaghetti sauce for David while he napped (Leila keeps him up at night like a newborn.) We stood in the kitchen and looked out at Leila, her sleeping face framed in the pass-through window. Eva told me: When I first met Leila, I was so in love with her. She was just so beautiful, and so fabulous. I told her I thought we would be friends forever, that we would grow old together. She looked at me in that way, (Eva mimics, creating a distance with a wave of one hand, upper torso pulling backwards) ‘Don’t be so presumptuous,’ she told me. But now, it’s almost come true.
When it was time for her to go back to the airport, Eva stood next to the hospital bed and talked to still-sleeping Leila, said goodbye, cried. I couldn’t hear her over the exhaust fan from the stove, but I could tell by the shape of her back what the conversation was.
I could not, have not, did not talk to Leila while she seemed out of it. I watched others do it. But I just couldn’t. For the most part.
That afternoon, I held her hand. Her skin was so dry, so I put lotion on. Each time the cold dab from the bottle touched her skin, she startled, eyes wide. I reassured her. Telling her exactly what I was doing, the same way I used to narrate diaper changes and such to Jonah when he was a newborn.
She never actually acknowledged me that day. I’m not sure she recognized me. I could tell she knew who David was, and when her mother came, I heard her say, Mom. Several times she tried to get out of bed and I tried to explain to her that she couldn’t. But it seemed impossible to explain. Her mind didn’t know the limitations of her body anymore. Eventually she’d give in and lie back down.
I talked a lot to David that day. True things we’ve been thinking and feeling. (Later, when others, a friend, one of the nurses, claimed that she could hear everything, even when we thought she wasn’t with us, wasn’t comprehending, I was grateful for the conversations I’d had with others in her presence, because we’d said things to each other I’d never gotten a chance to say to her.)
The next day, yesterday, her condition had declined even more. I got the news in an email that afternoon, that she was more out of it, that her lungs were full of fluid. I’d just been in the process of trying to organize a sign-up sheet, for those of us who wanted to visit, to keep David company with Leila. I said I’d come at 5:30. I looked around the room, trying to figure out what to do next, what to do until 5:30. I ended up grabbing some food from the fridge, to cook dinner for David and I, and walking out the door right then. I called the nanny. “Please prepare Jonah, let him know I won’t be here when he gets home.”
I was unprepared for the sound of someone breathing through fluid. Rough, jagged, bubbling breaths. Her head would move, her mouth open wide, gulping at the air. Her eyes were slightly open, unfocused. Is she awake or asleep? I asked.
I sat down on the couch, and for the first time in her and David’s presence, I cried.
The plan for the evening was this: one friend, who’d been there all afternoon, would go home and feed her dog. David was going to go pick up the kids and take them out to dinner as soon as the nurse arrived at 5:30. The meal I’d brought to cook for David would now be for the friend, who would come back around 6:30, and another friend would be on her way over at 7.
These events occur: I put ointment on Leila’s hands. A special salve made from shea butter and tea tree oil, prepared by a neighbor. The friend leaves. I sit down next to Leila and meditate. We used to meditate together. The nurse, Etie, arrives right on schedule, David leaves.
Etie administers Leila’s medications over the next hour, by droppers: morphine, haldol, something to ease the rasping in her throat. I ask her if she thinks Leila is still with us. She says no. The body has shut down. Her eyes aren’t focusing. The only organ working now is her heart.
I tell Leila, “Honey, I’m going to make pork chops in your kitchen. I hope that’s okay.”
Etie sits with me in the kitchen while I cut up apples for applesauce. Four apples from my garden. I slice each one into small pieces, making a pile of cores and peel. Etie asks me questions about Leila while I chop. I realize I am cutting very slowly. “I think this is therapeutic,” I say. “Leila was a really great cook,” I inform her, experimenting with the past tense while rooting through the spice cabinet, looking for cardamom, ginger. “This meal is an homage.”
Etie asks if Leila has kids, if I have kids, tells me she has six, all grown, still back in New Zealand. “I got divorced and I needed to live in a different country from my husband,” she says in a thick accent. She asks where Leila’s kids are. I tell her. “In my culture,” she says, “the kids would be with her. Everyone would be gathered around her.”
Etie goes out to the living room and sits with Leila while I eat my meal. Blackened pork chops with applesauce, fried potatoes, and salad dressed in lemon juice and cumin. Etie studies the posterboards of family photos we’d displayed at the Healing Circle event, less than two weeks ago, now placed against the wall at the head of the hospital bed. “She was very beautiful,” she says, “and so young.”
Joni arrives and joins me at the kitchen table. She says Leila’s breath sounds different. Worse. I can’t hear it exactly. As much as possible I’ve tuned it out, mentally turned it into the sound of a machine, rhythmic.
We talk about whether or not Meg is going to come over. It’s just 7. Did she get Joni’s email? Did she know David wasn’t going to be here but we were?
Meg arrives. She immediately starts crying, assuming that my presence in the house means Leila is already gone.
She comes in and we all hug, and then we start to putter. Do you think we should open these cards, put them out around the room? Perhaps not. The kids may come after she passes, maybe they wouldn’t want to see all the cards around. Meg, the organizer, goes through the mail, sorting out bills from the rest of the pile. Joni and I explain to Meg that David is out with the kids.
We hear a noise. What was that noise? Again.
Leila, vocalizing. A sound. A long moaning sound.
Is she in pain? No, she’d just had morphine a little bit ago. The three of us gather near her head, Etie stands near Leila’s feet, but at a distance. This is it, she tells us. Leila’s eyes focus, staring into Joni’s. I place my hands gently on Leila’s head, as I have done so many times in the last few weeks, and the last two days. I lean close to her. Meg is standing behind Joni. The bubbling in Leila’s breathing is gone. Her breaths are slower, farther apart. The three of us are all talking, crying, praying. Leila, you are so beautiful. We love you. Everything is going to be okay. Everything is okay. You did good. You did so many good things in this world. We love you. It’s okay.
“She’s gone,” says Etie.
I try closing her eyes, like they do in the movies, but the lids pop right back up. Etie explains that it takes a while. We position her head and I hold her jaw and eyelids closed while Joni and Meg start cleaning up. Joni calls David. Meg gathers all the medical gear and supplies and moves them into the garage, to make the room more hospitable, if the kids decide they want to see her.
Etie leaves. “Tell David, he doesn’t have to pay me for tonight,” she says.
After a while, I trade places with Joni, finishing up the dishes while she holds Leila’s face. I clean out the freezer. Meals will be arriving soon. I put out dried apricots, pretzels, pine nuts, remembering that my grandmother, right before her death, had made a list of items that she’d wanted for her funeral, such as white roses and sand from Israel to be placed on the casket, and no one could figure out why she’d written “pistachios” until finally we realized she’d meant, for the guests.
Arrivals: Her mother, David, the kids.
I call a few people to give them the news. My friend tells me of washing her father’s body after he had passed. A Jewish ritual.
The hospice nurse arrives. She says, “In this situation, I usually offer to wash and dress the body, if you would like me to do that.”
I choose a long turquoise middle eastern caftan with gold embroidery, the one I think she may have worn to the Healing Circle, though none of us can recall for certain. I show it to David and his eyes light up. Yes.
Joni, the nurse — whose physical beauty, like the startling handsomeness of every doctor and nurse at the hospital, Leila would definitely have remarked upon and appreciated — and I respectfully wash and dress Leila, put a necklace on her, cross her hands and rest them on her belly, lay a blue and white flowered coverlet over her feet.
It’s such a simple thing, and why bother, except that is possibly the one thing I am the most grateful for. That we gave Leila’s body this small dignity. Her face, the struggle removed, looked so peaceful and young. She was almost smiling.
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