Two years ago around this time, my brother-in-love Chris gave me a call and told me I needed to get my butt to Hopkins because Jen was probably going to die from the leukemia she had fought for over a decade. I know he used gentler words than that, but that’s not what I heard. What I heard was that my world was about to crack into pieces yet again.
My gut told me to drop everything and get there. I called out of work for the foreseeable future, got a sub who could cover for me even if I gave them really bare-bones sub plans and I gathered up my family for Baltimore. When I stepped onto that elevator in the Weinberg Garage (or GARE-ahge as the machine greets you when you pull in), I felt a wave of anxiety for a split second. What if Jen looked awful and I would only remember her that way? What if her death wasn’t peaceful and I had to steel myself to handle it to support her and to support her husband and boys?
Then the wave passed. I would endure anything to spend Jen’s last moments with her. If she was convulsing and vomiting blood, I would hold her hand and coo her name in her ear. I would remember that these moments were not about me or what I would remember or how I felt. These moments were about drinking up the very last seconds of Jen’s life so that I could somehow make it without her after she died.
Those few days (I really can’t remember how many actually. It felt like forever.) were hard. Most of us were camped out in the waiting room or on the floor in her hospital room or down the street at my other sister’s apartment. We were smelly and hungry and on edge and we had a variety of nurses and doctors coming in to say goodbye to Jen because she had touched them in some way during her treatments there at Hopkins.
There are moments from those days I will never forget. Good moments. Like when we snuck Bo (then only 3 years old) into Jen’s room and she opened her eyes for real and we saw that magnificent smile on her face. She reached out for him and held his little hand and seemed herself for second.
Or when someone mentioned Rico and she rolled her eyes in classic Jen style. Cuddling with my siblings and nephews on the waiting room furniture, joking and laughing and trying to forget what was happening in the room down the hall. Rico’s ridiculous slippers. (Please someone tell me we have a picture somewhere!) Jen’s cool smooth skin as I held her hand and talked to her like nothing was happening.
But there are things that I won’t forget that are difficult to think about. The look on her face when she needed her meds increased. How dry and shriveled up her tongue got because she was breathing with her mouth open. The panic in her eyes when she felt like she needed to throw up. The sound of the oxygen pump bubbling next her bed reminding me how she couldn’t do something as basic as breathing. Tears dotting her sheets. Falling in and out of sleep in the early morning hours, seeing my dad and Chris sitting Jen’s left and right sides, whispering to her and holding her hands. Hearing Chris yelling when she finally slipped away. Not wanting to leave her hospital room because that meant it was really over and she was really gone.
But all the fears I had about only being able to see those few last moments – the ugly moments of vomiting blood and slowly slipping away? They were completely unfounded. How could I focus on those few moments when I had a lifetime’s worth of beaming smiles, goofy faces and happy memories?
I remember those things about the day that Jen died, even though it’s been two years. I remember those things like they happened yesterday. I feel those things in my gut, even though it’s been 728 days since she died. But it’s with the same clarity and detail that I picture days like these:
Jen was more than her last moments. She was more than her last days or years. Jen will be remembered forever and her story and life have impacted more people than I will ever know. I am thankful for every second I had with her – even the ones I’d rather not think about. And I’m trying to live a life where I am like that with everyone I love. I am thankful for every second I have with them because I am unsure when it will end. I find peace in knowing that as long as I enjoy the now, the later will be full of memories I still enjoy.
Jen, you’ve been gone for two years, but in reality, you’re not gone. You color every moment of my day. You’ve trained me to know what you’d think in every situation and you’ve shown me how to learn from you even when you’re not around. I miss your physical self – your hugs, your laugh, your voice – but you are with me forever. And I praise God for you every.single.day.