August 12, 2013

The Final Moments

 Clean clothes, dirty clothes, I threw them all in my suitcases, quickly repacking to unexpectedly leave the condo we were staying in for General Council in Orlando. Larry got me the next available flight out, which meant we needed to leave immediately for the airport.

Photo Credit: elitatt, Flickr
Meanwhile my sister texted me to say that Tom had gotten off balance and fell and broke his arm. He was in the ER of the same hospital our mother was in.  Shari was just beside herself and said, “I need you! Please, please come quickly!” 

  “I’m coming as fast as I can!” I declared, while throwing my makeup and hair products in the bag, yanking the phone charger out from the wall, zipping the suitcase and saying, "let's go, babe..."

Flying Out

While waiting for my flight to Cinncinnati I texted my mother in love and asked her if she could fill the car with gas before she came to pick me up from the airport. I told her I’d pay her upon arrival for it, and explained I wanted to leave without delay to get to Judy. She said, “Of course I will…”

The first plane was delayed and as explained in this post, a miracle happened with the pilot who heard of my situation and reassured me.

We got there on time only for me to find out the flight to Baltimore was delayed by an hour. There was nothing I could do about it so I made the best of it and got a salad and iced tea, since I hadn’t eaten for eight hours. It was good to catch my breath and prepare my heart more for what was to come although I was extremely concerned about reaching her in time.

Meeting Mother-in-Love

The luggage took forever to arrive and by the time I got on the road to drop my mother in love off at her house, it was 11:30 PM. I thanked her profusely for picking me up and giving me the blessing of the car as well as filling the gas tank prior. I went to get in my purse to take out the money for the gas and not only did she refuse to take it but she handed me some cash that was in her hand and said, “You need to take this. You’re going to need it when you get to Richmond and I want you to have it. 

“Oh, dear Lord Jesus!” I exclaimed in frustration, waving off the money. (I was frustrated because I didn’t ask her for this nor did I feel it was necessary)

“Oh dear Lord Jesus, thank you for such an amazing daughter in love!!” she shouted at me, as we continued down the road. “Now take it! I won’t accept no for an answer! And  no arguing!” she said. 

“Yes m’am,” I responded.

Pedal to the Metal

It was midnight when she prayed for me before I took off for Richmond, quickly asking God to get me there in time.  After dropping her off at her house in Bowie (near Washington D.C.) I took off as fast as I could without being I danger of getting a speeding ticket. I wanted a cup of coffee or a restroom but I couldn’t bring myself to stop. I thought, “What if I miss getting to her in time by just five minutes or so and I know my coffee or bathroom break kept me from it?” I would have always regretted it. 

I had already put the address for Retreat Hospital on Clover Street in Richmond on my GPS and took off heading down 95 South. 

It was interesting that a lot of songs I have listened to the past few months to bolster my faith and my healing process were playing on the radio. I let them speak to me, while I drove. I prayed, mostly in the spirit. 

One song that really spoke to me was “Lifesong”. I drove down 95 South weeping as I listened. I prayed, “Oh God, please do let my lifesong sing to You…”

Photo Credit: darndamn, Flickr
Arriving at Retreat

At 2:30 AM I pulled into the parking garage of the Retreat Hospital and took my suitcases out of the car, determining not to waste any precious time having to come back out for anything. In the parking lot, a nurse was walking by and I asked her how to get to the hospice area. She told me it was on the fifth floor, to follow the sidewalk to the entrance and take the elevator to the top. I was glad I asked because at that time of night it was like a ghost town and no one was around to give direction. 

I took the elevator up and the nurses on duty asked if they could help me. I told them I was Judy’s daughter, coming in from out of town. They said, “Oh yes, we’ve been expecting you. Your sister is down the hall waiting for you.” A nurse whose name was Penny took me to find her.

Shari was in a nearby lounge and had fallen asleep on a couch. She was trying to stay up to meet me but she was so exhausted from only getting a few moments of sleep here or there for so long. I entered the dark quiet lounge and said, “Shari…I’m here.” She leaped up and threw her arms around me, clinging for dear life. We held on for a few minutes, just softly humming in one another’s ear as we embraced. It’s funny how we both do that instinctively.

She said, “Come on, let’s go see her…”

Wrong Room?

We walked down the hall and into a room. When I saw the patient in this particular room, I thought it was clearly an example of the stress my sister had been under. She evidently took me to the wrong room, she was so tired, disoriented and stressed!  This room could not be our mother’s room. This person looked absolutely nothing like Judy.  And it was heartbreaking beyond belief. A  woman was in the bed who couldn’t be more than 80 or 90 pounds at most. She was just a shell. And the shell was orange. A yellowish orangey color. The hair didn’t look at all like her hair. Her eyes were sunken. Her face looked absolutely nothing like our mother’s beautiful face. With every single breath she was gasping and gave a painful sigh when she exhaled.   

I was about ready to correct my sister that we were in the wrong room and then I looked at the person sitting in the recliner next to the bed and realized with shock that it was Tom.

Oh. My. God. 

The woman in the bed was Judy.     
I could not grasp the reality of this just yet.
It took me a moment to get my bearings.

Tom was on one side, and on the other side was Aunt Jeri. She sat on a chair with the upper half of her body lying across the side of Judy’s bed, gently holding her hand – faithfully keeping watch over her sister.

I went to Tom and embraced him around the head. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he said. 
“I’m so sorry about your arm…” I said. I quickly learned, it had been broken in such a way that a cast would not help. He needed an operation. Due to Judy being in her final moments, and Tom wanting to be there -- needing to be there --the doctors chose not to operate that night. His broken arm was left hanging in a sling for the time being. What a horrible predicament to be in.

Aunt Jeri looked up to see who had come in the room. Upon seeing it was me she smiled and stood and came around the bed to embrace me and said, “Deanna, here…take this spot…” giving her place to me.

We all stood for several moments at Judy’s bedside and they gently touched her head or hand ever so carefully as they spoke to her.

Quite honestly, I just stood there in shock and disbelief, with my hand on her shoulder, not reacting much. 

My brain was trying to adjust to the fact that this really was my mother. 

It was surreal.
Nine weeks ago, she felt perfectly fine! NINE weeks! 
She was doing tai chi and running up and down flights of stairs.
Working a full time job. 
And nine weeks later she was gasping for her last breath.
How is this even possible?

Everyone left so I could have time in the room alone with her.

I just stood there and wept.

I put my mouth up to her ear and quietly said I loved her.

I shared a few thoughts with her at that moment, but it became clear that although the situation was dire, it was going to be a bit more time though not long. I decided to get situated so I could stay in her room for the duration.

Shari took me to the room hospice had provided for us, with a bed and bathroom. 

I finally used the restroom, removed my shoes and put a pair of socks on, took my contacts out, put my glasses on, washed my face and brushed my teeth. I came back down to Judy’s room and told the others they were free to rest if they felt okay to do so, that I’d love to have some time with her.

3 AM Conversation

The lights of the room were dimmed and there was Celtic music playing softly on the CD player in the room. Although Judy was experiencing so much pain, hospice made every effort to provide an atmosphere of peace. 

 I began to share what was in my heart, holding her hand with one hand and a wad of Kleenex in the other. I repeated everything I wanted to say, and more, pouring it out, sobbing profusely and blowing my nose between most every sentence. I told her I loved her so much, that anything between us was forgiven. I told her not only how much I loved her but how much Jesus loved her too. I know she’s heard this many times but just wanted to say it again. 


Midway through expressing all this to her, Penny came in to check on her and take her vitals. I have never met a nurse like Penny although I know there are millions of amazing nurses in the world. She was the most compassionate gentle soul I have ever met in a medical facility, and as a pastor I’ve been in a lot of them! 

Penny  literally tiptoed around Judy’s bed, saying she didn’t want to do anything jarring that would hurt. In her sweet soft voice, she explained that at this stage of this type of cancer, every touch to the patient, anywhere, is brutal. Even bumping the bed is painful, and to be avoided. Although Penny held the stethoscope ever so gently, Judy’s face would wince in pain from just this light touch. When she had to check her blood pressure, it was excruciating although she did it ever-so-gingerly.  

Penny would close her eyes as she did various tasks, touching Judy so softly, as if silently praying and trying to get a feel for where she was at in the process.  “It won’t be long now,” she said. “She’s showing more of the signs, and our role is to make her as comfortable as possible.”

Noticing my overwhelm, Penny said, “Deanna, I’d like to give you some books we have here too that will give you insight… anything I can do to help, just let me know. I’m right out at the nurses station to help you with anything from a drink, to answering your questions or whatever we can do to make you more comfortable as well.”

“I have a question,” I said. “I know she can’t respond to me but does she really know it’s me and does she understand the meaning of what I’m saying to her right now? You can tell me the truth, Penny. Don’t say it just to make me feel better. I can handle it, and I really need to know.”

“Yes, she understands.” Penny said. “She absolutely understands what you are saying. Keep sharing with her anything you’d like her to know. And I’m right outside if you need me.”

She left, pulling the curtain and closing the door half way.

I secured another pile of Kleenex and took my spot on the chair that was pulled up alongside the bed and began to say the rest of what was on my heart  I know you can’t respond to me, but you hear me. And you understand. With that understanding, you can talk to Jesus too. Just know that. He loves you, Mom. He loves you with an everlasting love…just talk to him in your head.”

I thanked her for my life.
For giving me the past twenty years.

"I have no regrets about knocking on your door, Mom. No regrets. You were worth it. So worth it."

I sat there giving a one hour monologue from my heart. 
And I know she heard and took in every word of it.

I had already shared most of it in the six page letter that I wrote and gave to her back in February, before she was diagnosed with cancer. But saying it again wasn't just a gift to her. It was a tremendous gift to me.

She couldn’t speak back, but I could tell certain things I said made more of an impact than others. There would be a particularly louder sigh or it seemed her eyes would change slightly to get a little wider.


Tom came back after a while and we just stood at the foot of the bed, embracing and crying.

Looking down I noticed that she had an absolutely perfect pedicure with beautiful designs on her toes.

Designs just like I have on my toes all the time.

Her hands were perfectly manicured as well, just like mine. 

Although she’d been in the hospital for many weeks, not using her hands or feet and laying in bed kept them flawless.  It was surreal to see the rest of her body so altered and still have a perfect mani and pedi.

Aunt Jeri came back as well and the three of us pulled up chairs around the bed and took turns dozing in and out and looking up to check on her.       

Photo Credit: lexxxsmart, Flickr


The bright sun was coming through the windows at about 6 am and I woke up and looked up to see Aunt Jeri slowly rising from where her upper half was laying across Judy’s bed. I glanced over and silently mouthed, “Are you okay?” She nodded and looked back at me with a slight smile. I noticed how even after having barely any sleep and being by the side of her dying sister, Aunt Jeri looked the picture of class. After a night of keeping watch, she still wore cute shoes and bling, and her hair actually looked good. This is just one of the unique things about her. She is my mother’s older sister by 15 months, and still works 70 hours a week, wears high heels and has a trendy hairdo.

A new nurse came on shift that morning and came in to check on Judy. When doing the vitals she remarked about the obvious stress on Judy’s face with each and every move. “I don’t like that,” she said.  “We need to try to make her even more comfortable. With the way her brow is furrowing even more with each light touch, I’m concerned she is in more pain than she needs to be. I want to see about getting her another dose of pain meds.” We agreed that would be great. She went and got a syringe and came back to put it in the IV. Tom stepped out during this time to the hallway.

The Transition

After the nurse left, Aunt Jeri and I were in the room, alongside her just talking softly to her and sharing some thoughts. Then we sat back down in the chairs alongside the bed.

It was just a little past 8:35 when I noticed something different.

Something was shifting. 

Judy’s breathing was not just labored, it was an extremely long time between breaths. 

“Aunt Jeri, I think something’s wrong.”

“I know,” she said, “I’m thinking the same thing…they told us the breaths would get longer apart or she could go into apnea but this seems odd.” 

“The nurse...we need the nurse,” I said. 

Aunt Jeri quickly stepped to the hallway to get her. Suddenly I saw a look on Judy’s face that was different than all the rest. I felt in my heart that this was it. “Shari!” I exclaimed, “Call Shari!”

Aunt Jeri called for Shari. I heard Tom’s voice behind in the hallway asking what was happening and felt his presence entering the room.

I turned to Judy as her eyes became very wide and she was taking her last three breaths and as she did, I lightly touched her arm and said, “Mom, you are loved. I love you. We all love you. Jesus loves you…” and then she took her last breath and slipped into eternity. 

The Gathering

By the time that happened, Tom, Aunt Jeri, Shari and myself were gathered around the bed. 

There was no longer a danger of hurting Judy by our movements. and my sister threw herself across the lower part of her and just started crying out loud, praising God that she was no longer in pain. 

The rest of us stood and quietly wept as the nurse  took her vitals and confirmed, she was gone.            

We stayed in the room a long time, both together and separately. Each person had time with her after she passed, and we had time together.

They asked me to pray and I said it was hard to do so out loud at the time in my grief,  but I did. I just asked God to give us grace, and thanked Him for surrounding us.

Once we concluded our time, the nurses as well as a volunteer came and embraced us and told us how sorry they were for our loss. 

Compassion was palpable. It seemed to drip off of everyone at the hospice.

Shari and Aunt Jeri and I got our suitcases from the rooms and we went to our cars in the parking lot and headed for the funeral home to make arrangements. 

Going through the process of Judy's last moments, funeral arrangements and the days following are indelible memories etched in my brain. I will share these moments in the days ahead.  

Most meaningful were the unexpected ways I discovered just how deeply she really loved me. 

I know beyond any doubt whatsoever, that she loved me so very much and from beginning to end, saw me in every sense of the word as her firstborn...her daughter.