In the late 1990s, my mother’s beloved older sister “Engie,” became unable to care for herself. The family hired a caregiver who proved wholly unsatisfactory. In October 2000, my mother and I flew out to Alameda to pick up Engie and bring her back to Illinois (where I was living at the time).
My mother was in her late 70s at the time, and the stress of worrying about her dear sister was taking a toll on her emotional and physical health. I couldn’t bear to see my mother suffer so. I volunteered to move Engie to Illinois and put her in a good-quality home and watch over her as if she were my own sister.
This comforted my mother.
I also made a promise to my mother that I would continue to take care of Engie until the day she took her last breath.
A promise is a promise, but a promise made to one’s dear mother is a solemn vow.
Little did I know that my own mother would die about 14 months later. Despite my deep grief, I pushed on and upheld my end of the bargain, and continued to visit Engie frequently and watch over her and pray for her and sing her to sleep at night and kiss her on the cheek – which always made her smile.
Below is an excerpt from an unpublished manuscript, detailing my care of Engie. This excerpt discusses Engie’s last day, October 25, 2005.
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Engie and I had come a long way together and now our walk together was coming to an end. Just six days earlier, I’d been sitting at the local restaurant, eating pumpkin pancakes with Pamela, with no idea of what awaited me at the nursing home. Now I was parked at Engie’s bedside, basking in the glow of this heavenly energy, and waiting for that shimmering tether that connected her soul and body to snap free.
And five days earlier, I’d been sitting in this same spot when my eyes fell on an old photo of Engie. It was a good clear photo, showing Engie, her husband Charlie and Engie’s brother, Harry. They were all dressed in their Sunday best, with Engie wearing a fashionable hat, white gloves and clutching a small purse. She sure looked cute in her classic 1950s dress with green polka dots. I picked up the picture to take a closer look and noticed that it was taken in 1959, the year of my birth. Isn’t that a coincidence, I thought to myself.
Then I looked at Engie’s 87-year-old body laying on the bed. And then it hit me. When that photo was taken, Engie was in her mid-40s, or about my age. When that photo was taken, she was where I am now, on the nine-decade timeline that is the average woman’s life. If Engie was my age in 1959, then did that mean that one day, I would be the age she is now?
Now we all may know – on an intellectual level – that our time on this earth is limited, but this little example gave me the proverbial smack between the eyes. While still reeling from this revelation, I noticed something else about this photo that I’d never seen before. In the background, there was an old wall clock with its hands positioned neatly at 10 and 2. An angel voice whispered to me, “This will be the time when Engie passes on. Remember, our times are in Thine hands. God knows the end from the beginning.”
Another angel message that was not aligned with my personal belief systems, but there it was. Did God really know such details of our mortal life? I decided I was probably thinking too much and gently set the photo back on the night stand and returned to singing “Rock of Ages” for the 49th time.
I could hear the hospice nurse in the hallway, rustling about and asking what had happened to Engie’s standing order for morphine. Upon overhearing this, I felt a wave of irritation arising in me, gathering strength and momentum. For several days, we’d been talking about having morphine ready if needed and now, someone thought it was needed and no one could find it? I decided to let that little drama stay outside in the hallway. I didn’t want to leave Engie and I didn’t want to come down from this mountaintop of spiritual clarity. I don’t remember a time in my life when I felt so calm, serene and completely unafraid.
I continued to hold Engie’s hand and sing hymns. The words of these hymns came alive with meaning to me and I sang softly, slowly and with tears in my eyes. The time between her breaths was getting longer and longer and often it was more a series of little sighs than a breath. For a few moments, I tried breathing in concert with her but couldn’t hold my breath that long.
Then I heard the hospice nurse approaching our room. I bent over and whispered into Engie’s ear, “He’s well-intentioned, but he’s coming back in here with something neither you nor I think you need. You might want to get while the getting’s good.”
I said it in half-jest. She took me seriously.
Morphine in hand, he started to dribble the liquid into her open mouth and her breathing became quite odd, almost like tiny puffs. He said, “I think she’s going.”
I looked down at her and she had stopped breathing, but she’d already done that so many times. But then she let out a tiny little squeak and the last bit of pink color, on her chest and neck and parts of her face, disappeared in a flash.
“She’s gone,” he said.
I closed my eyes and prayed the most earnest, heart-felt prayers of my life, pleading that God’s angels would lead her and keep her safe. I prayed that the angelic ushers would lead her directly to the light of God’s love and that her transition would be blessed and joyous and simple. I thought of my favorite Bible verse and its applicability to this moment: “Behold, I send an angel before thee, to keep thee in the way and bring thee into the place I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20).
The hospice nurse spoke again and said, “She gone to heaven now. She’s with Jesus and safe forever.”
In my journal, I wrote,
“The nurse’s comments – and the love that motivated them – were a great comfort. When she was actually passing on – those few seconds when she was leaving the building – I felt a powerful surge of all kinds of emotions and spiritual energy. I felt hyper-attuned to the things of spirit and felt supremely close to God. Tears poured down my face. It was a blend of joy that she was reunited with her family and it was also a relief that I had finished the work God gave me to do – that of being her caretaker. I always loved her and always will love her, but seeing her in that state for five years was very, very hard. But even now, writing these words a few days later, I remember experiencing those tears of relief and their odd coupling with a profound joy that she was with her family again.”
After a few seconds passed, I asked the nurse if he was really sure that she was gone. After all, she’d stopped breathing before – for periods up to 45 seconds.
“That’s why we get another nurse to confirm.”
With that, he dashed out of the room and reappeared in less than 20 seconds with a staff nurse from the home. She felt for Engie’s pulse, looked me in the eye and said softly, “Yes, she has passed.”
I replied, “Are you really sure?” Suddenly, I had an image of putting Engie into a body bag while she was still alive. And she’d hung on for so long, how could we be sure she wouldn’t come back? In retrospect, I probably wasn’t doing my best human reasoning at this moment. But looking at her still form left little doubt. In less than two minutes, her color was now dramatically different, as was the appearance of her face and body.
The hospice nurse said, “I’m calling it. Time of death, 10:10 a.m.” And that’s when a chill ran through me. That was the same time in the picture by her bed, on the wall clock I’d never noticed until five days ago. All our time is in God’s hand. Really and truly and literally and figuratively. God knows the end from the beginning. Before Engie ever came to earth, God knew what time she’d returned to heaven.
The nurses left me alone with Engie and then a diminutive, young aide appeared in the room, carrying two towels, a sponge, a small plastic tub and a washcloth.
“Would you rather have a moment with her before I clean her up?” she asked.
“Yes, I would.”
I could no longer sit at the edge of Engie’s bed, but stood at its foot. I took a moment to pray and enjoy the presence of that angelic army that had silently shared this space and time with us. I closed my eyes and looked for them but found myself saying out loud, “Everyone’s gone!” The room was flat and cold and empty. They’d all left without saying good-bye and they’d left in a hurry! The life energy that I’d felt coursing through that room was simply gone. It was akin to being a guest at a big, happy party, turning your back for a moment and then looking back to see that everyone had rushed off.
Years earlier, I’d read Catherine Marshall’s book, “A Man Called Peter,” a biography of Peter Marshall, chaplain to the Senate in 1947 – 1949 and well-known minister of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The most memorable part of this well-written book was Catherine’s telling of Peter’s death. After he passed on, Catherine remained in the hospital room, seated beside Peter’s body. She said she became aware of a shining, loving and powerful presence in the room and it was made clear to her that Peter and someone else were there to help her through this difficult time. She said she didn’t want to leave the room because she knew she was in the presence of the very essence of divine love. After a time, this presence faded and she knew it was time to leave. This experience, she related, helped her deal with the grief of losing her husband so suddenly.
I suppose I was expecting to have a similar experience. In Peter’s case, he was 46 years old and his death was very sudden. Engie and I had had years to prepare for this. Perhaps that was the difference.
In my journal, I described the life-force that I’d felt in Engie’s room as “pure energy and pure love, if you can imagine the two conjoined, powerful and strong and awesome and amazing.”
But now everyone was gone and I was alone and I looked over at Engie’s still form and all I could think was, “What in the world am I doing in here with a dead body?” That single glimpse of the body brought on another wave of nausea, so I quickly rose and left the room. (Later, in my journal I wrote, “I feel like God was telling me that Engie had spent enough time in the nursing homes. When it was over, she didn’t want to linger. She was ready to get out of there.”)
Unsure of what to do next, I went to the nurse’s station and asked simply, “What do I do now?”
They asked for the name of the funeral home I wanted to use and they made the call for me. I called my brother Tom, but couldn’t get through. I went outside to look at the pretty blue sky and breathe in some of the beautiful fall morning. I walked to my car and sat inside of it for a time. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or be disturbed. I just wanted to compose myself and gather my thoughts and ponder the enormity of this experience. After a few minutes, I walked back toward the front door of the nursing home and met the hospice nurse, loading his things into a crummy-looking, rusted-out Ford pick-up truck.
“I wish that someone doing such holy, sacred work,” I thought to myself, “could have the simple joy of a better-looking and more reliable set of wheels.”
I thanked him for his good work and told him how grateful I was that he’d been there when Engie passed. He seemed relieved and expressed concern that he had intruded on such a private moment.
“Oh no,” I told him. “I think she was waiting for you to return so I wouldn’t be alone in the room when she passed on.”
When I returned to Engie’s room, I found that someone had come in to clean her up a bit. Her hands were overlapped, resting on her chest and her eyes were closed and her hair had been combed. To think that some minimum-wage, overworked nurse’s aide had taken the time and effort to tidy up Engie’s body was deeply touching. I sat down on the empty bed in the semi-private room and waited for someone from the funeral home to show up. And then Engie’s body started making some really strange gurgling sounds and I had to leave the room. I told her good-bye, which was ridiculous, because I knew that Engie was long gone.
The funeral director arrived and I met with him in the nursing home’s atrium. We sat down and talked about the arrangements. I was surprised by how concerned I was about Engie’s body. I told him that it was part of our religious tradition that her naked body not be exposed at any time during this cremation process and that I needed to know that her body would be treated with respect and care. In voicing these things, I realized that my job as advocate wasn’t over yet.
I then asked him at least two dozen questions to which he gave thoughtful, carefully worded replies. I apologized for the interrogation but told him, “These things matter to me. I’ve taken care of her for five years. I need to make sure her body is taken care of properly.”
His reply surprised me.
“I don’t mind your questions. In fact, I’m glad to answer them. You have no idea how often the family calls us with a credit card and tells us where to pick up the body. We never meet them and we never hear from them again. You’re asking questions because you care. That’s a good thing.”
Next, he went to his vehicle (a white windowless minivan) and pulled out a gurney with a folded sheet laid neatly on top. I met him at her room and asked if he needed help moving her onto the gurney, to which he said no. I asked again that he take care to keep her body discreetly covered. He did so as I looked on, and he treated her body with great care. He then wrapped her up in the sheet, explaining that she would not be uncovered again and that the sheet would be destroyed in the cremation process.
I walked with him as he pushed the gurney down the nursing hall corridors. Realizing it was the last stroll I’d take with my dear Auntie, my still-damp eyes started to tear up again. Nurses in the hallway stopped moving, turned toward us and offered a solemn nod as our little procession went by. One young aide stopped and touched my arm and said, “I’m so sorry about your Aunt. I hear you stayed with her to the end. You’re a good niece.”
Her comments touched me deeply.
We walked out the back door and he loaded the gurney into the back door of the custom-designed minivan. We shook hands and I thanked him for his care and thoughtfulness. He said he’d be in touch and to call if I had any more questions. After locking down the gurney and shutting the back door, he got in the van and drove away.
I remember standing there at the curb, gazing up toward the deep blue sky and saying, “I did it, Mom. I stayed with her until she drew her last breath. Hardest thing I ever did, but I did it.”
A dear friend, whom I leaned on heavily during this time said, “You honored your mother by keeping that promise. She’d be proud of you.”
I took great comfort in that.
Walking down the sidewalk to my car, I remember thinking, “So this is how life feels when there’s no fear, no regrets, no guilt, no negative emotions of any kind? This feels real good.”
I felt more alive that day than I’d ever felt before. And I felt proud of myself for doing something hard, not quitting in the middle and seeing it through to the end. It was all good.
For the next few days, that feeling of being hyper-attuned to the things of spirit and the things of God remained with me. It manifested itself in several ways. I felt a deep-down-to-the-bones serenity. I couldn’t bear to hear people gossip or talk ugly about each other. I couldn’t watch television, for any violence was too disturbing. Before the phone rang, I knew – not only that it was going to ring, but who was calling. It was an amazing experience. And I’m sorry to say that that spiritual high eventually faded, but it was memorable, life-changing and transformative.
And there was another interesting piece of this experience that I still retain, even two years later. When I thought of Engie, I never thought of her as dead. I had a persistent feeling that I’d packed her off for an adventure in a new place. I felt like a mom who’d bundled up her child and sent her off to summer camp for a season of fun.
The movie “What The Bleep Do We Know?” refers to the human body as a four-layer bio suit. When I thought of Engie, it wasn’t even a feeling that, here’s the body and here’s the soul and they’ve separated now. Her bio-suit didn’t define her or even represent her. It was just the outfit she wore for these last eight decades. And now, she’d left the suit behind so she could move on to the next adventure. It was as though she’d left behind her snowsuit because she’d gone off to live in the sunny tropics.
Engie’s body was cremated and because she was a WWII veteran, I made arrangements to have her ashes interred at a Veteran’s cemetery in St. Louis (Jefferson Barracks).
Today marks the sixth anniversary of that life-changing day.
I hope her soul is at peace.
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