The Day Vanessa Died

I decided to write this blog post hours ago, but instead of writing I busied myself with a hundred little unnecessary things; anything to help me protract my procrastination for as long as possible. It’s not as if I’m being forced to write this. If I never write it life will go on. Nothing earth shattering will result from my inability to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. Strange how I feel so compelled to write, yet my anxiety over it has had the better of me for most of the day. Well, I’m finally here and I’m going to put down a few things about the day Vanessa died.

Her living room had been turned into a hospital room, complete with a hospital bed, oxygen tank, tubes, and a medication table. The wheel chair was parked in the corner of the room. Just a week before, one of the hospice volunteers stopped by and took her for a spin through the neighborhood. She enjoyed that.

The night before, she was sitting on the sofa, leaning to her right. She was staring at the ceiling as though she was unaware of anything else in the world, as if she was already gone.  From the literature hospice provided, I knew instantly what that meant.  It was very late, but I called hospice and asked if the duty nurse could come by to have a look at her. It was nearly 3:00 a.m. when he arrived. He examined her, took me aside and told me that the end was near. I knew the time would come, but the feeling in my stomach still felt like a punch. I can’t begin to describe the tension I felt. I was there alone with my sister, and she was dying. I was actually going to be there with her as she departed this world. I pulled myself together and went to her.

Vanessa, let’s get you to bed so you can be more comfortable.” She said, “May as well.” I still cry sometimes when I think about her saying those words. The sofa was just a few feet away from the bed. I picked her up off the sofa, and we walked as if slow dancing those few feet to her hospital bed. In her day, she was a striking 5’9″, 125-130 pounds. Holding her as we walked to her bed, she was no more than 80 pounds. As we slowly walked, she said “I love you so much, Karla.” I said, “I love you, too, Vanessa. And I’m so sorry you’re sick.” I sat on the bed with her, laying beside her for a few minutes, and sitting back up to hold her hand. She began her stare into the corner again, and I sat there and cried quietly.

I was expecting her regular hospice nurse at 2:00 that Friday afternoon. Watching Vanessa’s chest rise slower and slower, I called and asked if she could come sooner. She arrived and began her examination. I knew from her expression that it was time to call Vanessa’s daughter. I did so, and it was one of the hardest calls I’ve ever had to make. Without Vanessa’s knowledge, I called and emailed her daughter several weeks before and while I didn’t mention cancer, I did tell her that her mother was ill, and that she needed her urgently. Still, she didn’t come.

Vanessa deliberately hid the extent of her illness from her daughter, and made me promise not to say anything to her either. It was her decision to make, but I found the circumstances rather untenable. I think she just wanted to protect her daughter from the pain and unbearable grief that she would no doubt feel, but this secrecy during a time of such sadness put a considerable amount of pressure on me.

The hospice nurse was aware of Vanessa’s request, but as the end drew near we both knew that her daughter had to be told. We had a conversation with her, telling her how dire things were and telling her that she needed to come say goodbye. I felt terrible being in that position. I knew she was scared. She must have been terrified. Still, I could no longer protect her for Vanessa, and what the hell was I going to do or say once Vanessa had died? It was time to talk.

The hospice nurse was great. She made me feel not so alone. She examined Vanessa, took the stethoscope’s ear piece from her ears and said,”She’s gone.” All I could muster as I began to sob was, “Are you sure?” She hugged me as I cried, and I eventually broke free so that I could call Vanessa’s daughter. It was actually my second call to her that day, as I called her before I called the nurse. I knew what was happening, and I wanted to tell her that her mother was dying before I had to tell her that her mother was actually dead. I was still trying to protect her to some degree, as I knew Vanessa wanted me to do.

This time when her daughter answered, I couldn’t talk. I passed the phone to the hospice nurse because I was crying. She very gently called her by name and said,”Your mother has just passed away.” I was very grateful to her for that, for being the first to say those words She just understood that I couldn’t do it.

To add to this difficult, painful, situation I should mention that prior to all of this I had not seen Vanessa for nearly 20 years, and our phone calls were few and far between. Nothing happened to effect this estrangement, it’s just how life played out for us. Neither of us set out to let so many years go by without being in touch, but it happened. Still, I knew she thought the world of me because in our few exchanges over the years, she always made me feel it. She was a full ten years older than me, so I knew very little of her as I was growing up.

The hospice nurse asked where the towels were, and asked if I wanted to help wash Vanessa’s body. I got the towels, but declined to help wash her. Instead, I went outside and called my own daughter who lived 10 hours away. When I returned, I noticed that the hospice nurse was not using the towels I provided. She was using my favorite towel, and in the midst of all this sadness and pressure I felt, the pettiest of thoughts crossed my mind, “Why is she using my favorite towel and not the towels I gave her?” I removed Vanessa’s wedding rings, kissed her cheek and said goodbye. It’s strange, but when I kissed her, I could have sworn that I felt her exhale; take a breath.

When the funeral home came to take Vanessa away, one of them kept me busy with paperwork while the other two put her into a body bag. I remember aside from seeing the feet sticking up at the bottom from inside the bag, you could hardly tell there was a body in there at all. I still cry sometimes even though this happened two years ago; November 1, 2013. It’s also the birthday of our oldest sister, Rita, who died in 1989 from the exact same cancer. Strange, but it all feels just like yesterday.