On May 7th 1995, my life was forever altered.
Life altering events happen every day, but we are typically unaware of them. It seems they always happen to others as we read about them in the paper or watch them on the news.
Individually, we spend most of life engaging in the grind of it. We get out of bed. We go to work. We go to school. We raise children. We cook. We clean. We sit down to dinner. We entertain ourselves with mindless television to escape the ever-present drudgery that life all too often connotes for us. And then, once in a great while, it confronts us with the reality of something that leaves an indelible mark on our souls.
Some life-altering events are universal.
For my grandparents’ generation it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For my parents’ generation it was the Kennedy assassination. For my generation and that of my children it was the terror attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. Most life-altering events, however, are individual.
The individual life altering event to which I referred in the opening text of this entry was a right hook that came in the form of a phone call from my manager on a Saturday morning at 10:00. Its inception, however, occurred at 4:00 on the Friday afternoon prior.
I was sitting on the steps of the office building where I worked as I nursed a New Castle Brown Ale. My friend Pat walked over to my stoop after entertaining a conversation with another woman, whose name and image I can’t recall. Pat was known as the office mom at work. She was the receptionist, office manager, and general caretaker of us all, and she was loved by everyone.
She took a seat beside me and raised a long neck Corona to her lips.
“Weekend plans?” I inquired.
“The Eagles.” she replied.
“The Eagles are in town?”
“Yeah; the Hell Freezes Over tour.”
“Wow. I’m jealous.”
“And I hired a divorce attorney.”
“Really? You’re done? That’s it?”
“You OK? Any regrets?”
“I’m fine. I told you; I have Eagles tickets.” She smiled and took another swig. I turned to look at her profile. I remember that she seemed so pretty in that moment.
I continued. “Well I gotta pick up the kids. My wife is outta town.”
“Yeah; I need to go too.”
We tossed our bottles into the trash bin in a single unified motion and headed to the elevator. I went back to my office and collected my things, and then I left the office area and headed to the common hallway to use the mens’ room. I looked to my right just as she entered the ladies’ room.
“See you Monday” I called out as I waved. “Later.” came the reply.
10 minutes later she died in a freak one-car accident.
I, frankly, never recovered.
Present day. My wife and her sister have been caring for their grandmother, Maxine, who has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Day in and day out; night in and night out; they have cared for her, meeting every need. The drudgery of life asserts itself.
Then last Wednesday. I made my regular afternoon call to Heidi. She seemed distracted. “What’s wrong?” I inquired. “Nothing; I’m just dealing with grandma.”
“Yes. I’ll call you back.”
As I hung up the phone a sense of foreboding gripped me. A quiet voice deep inside whispered to me that something was desperately wrong and a sudden urgency overtook me. I shut down my computer, informed my manager that I needed to leave, and walked out to my car. The sound of the car door slamming closed seemed poignant in a way I can’t quite describe.
As I crossed the threshold of the front door I was confronted by a familiar unpleasant aroma I couldn’t place but I instinctively knew. An odor that took me to another place I couldn’t quite remember; a sudden Deja Vu. Inside the air was still and the silence overwhelming.
I made my way to the bedroom where Heidi’s grandmother, Maxine, slept. Maxine was in bed and Heidi was kneeling at her side.
“How is she?”
“Can I help?”
“No. She had a bad nose bleed. I was afraid she was leaving us, but I guess she’s OK. I just need to watch her.”
Heidi stood up, and then I saw it in her eyes: the terrible fear that only appears when the end seems certain and immutable. I held her for a moment as she sobbed. When I released her she wiped her eyes and simply said “I love you.” We left the room just as I heard the front door open. Unannounced, her friend Sherry arrived greeting Heidi with a heartfelt embrace.
“I asked Sherry to stop by. She wanted to help.”
I looked at the time. It was 5:00 and Wednesday is when I typically meet the guys for Happy Hour.
“So I was thinking about meeting up with the guys.”
“Go ahead honey. Everything’s under control.”
I kissed her and said goodbye relieved that the situation was not nearly as dire as I thought. Little did I know.
I returned home at about 7:45 and was again confronted with the same fetid odor that greeted me earlier. And then in a moment of violent recall, I knew the smell. It was the stench from the scene of Pat’s accident, which I had visited the Saturday afternoon after her death. It’s funny how these things pervade our senses and linger without permission.
I heard soft whispers coming from Maxine’s room. I made my way to the threshold to find Sherry wiping blood from Maxine’s face as Heidi lay next to her weeping softly. It was a nose-bleed—an otherwise simple condition—but the flow was so profuse it was alarming. It was then that I embraced the truth, and the truth was that Maxine was dying.
I quietly entered the room and sat in the chair near the foot of the bed. I looked on for the next four hours as they took turns holding her, caressing her brow, wiping blood from her face, and offering comfort as she begged to go—to see family members who were no longer on this plane of existence. It’s never easy—dying. We fight it, sometimes fiercely, but despite our best efforts it always ends the same.
I watched as she closed her eyes to sleep and then opened them again begging to go. Over and over like a broken vinyl record that skipped unendingly, she alternated between dead sleep and anxious agitation until she finally succumbed to the sleeping meds Heidi gave her.
Heidi’s mother and sister arrived at about that time and thankful for a respite we left the room as I listened to Maxine’s labored breathing and the hushed conversation among the women.
It was 5:25 the next morning when Heidi’s mother knocked on our bedroom door and ushered in Heidi’s life altering experience. “Mother passed.”
I walked with her to the room where Maxine lay and looked on as Heidi held the cold shell that was once her grandmother and tearfully said goodbye. On November 29th 2012, in a fleeting moment, life changed for Heidi, never to be the same.