“Her breathing has changed.” That was a text message Susan’s son, Oliver, sent to me about an hour before she died. Susan’s breathing and love summoned us to her.
Susan entered the palliative care ward at Montreal’s McGill University Health Centre on Saturday, August 25, 2018 and died the following Friday. She spent the week prior to this in a different hospital where she was treated for severe side effects from the chemo. It was exactly what she hadn’t wanted to happen — to get caught up in treatment and then to suffer from side effects. While in the hospital, two weeks prior to her death, she used two words with me that she never had before: “misery” and “weary”. She used “misery” to describe the suffering she was experiencing from the side effects and “weary” to describe the effort it took to get through her days. Susan had a rich vocabulary and I loved how carefully she chose her words. But to hear those powerful words used to describe her state of being was heartbreaking.
The days and nights in the palliative ward were calm and peaceful. Having somewhat recovered from the side effects, she was comforted by the care she received there and by the loving family and close friends around her. She slept a lot, but remained lucid and comfortable when she was awake. Her pain was managed wonderfully. Her sons, Oliver and Nathan, visited her the most. I sat or slept by her side. It was what she wanted. The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were fine days. She slept, we talked, she slept some more. Her sons came to see her, as did other family members (when she was feeling up to it).
On Thursday morning, Oliver and Nathan arrived early. We entered Susan’s room and gathered around her bed. “Happy birthday, Oliver,” Susan said with a smile. Oliver smiled back. Over the next few hours the two boys spent quiet time with their mom. It was so tender and loving. Susan drank in the faces of her sons and a look of such great love washed over her own. It was incredible. She glowed with love and pride and her eyes twinkled for the first time in weeks. I could see the love moving between the three of them. She fell asleep later that afternoon and never really gained consciousness again. Just past midnight I whispered in her ear that it was no longer Oliver’s birthday. That day had come and gone.
The next day, she rested comfortably, calmly. She breathed steadily and gave no signs of discomfort. She was stable. Oliver was with her in the late afternoon when her breathing began to change. He sent me the text and I hurried back to her room. Nathan, who had left earlier in the day, returned without being summoned by a text or call. He was on the metro, going home, but rather than get off at his stop he felt the need, the urge to remain on and go see his mom. The three of us stayed close by her bed. Susan’s breathing became apnea-like, with a pause between each breath. The nurse came and administered something to reduce the apparent distress and within minutes her breathing calmed once again.
The sun was about an hour away from the horizon. A beautiful bank of clouds passed across the sky outside her window, the light a bluish grey and orange. I put my hand on top of her head, held her hand. I was close enough to hear her soft exhales. After about ten minutes of soft breathing, she exhaled and then did not inhale again. I looked at the boys, whose eyes were wet. As we watched her face, Susan let out one final, soft breath. And then she was still.
Susan had hoped to die at home, but that was not to be. She had wanted her sons and me to be with her when she died and she had wanted to be free from pain, even if it meant sedation. Those wishes she was granted. I am certain that she knew the three of us were in the room. I am certain she heard us whispering to her that we loved her. We watched her let go of living and say goodbye in such a loving way. Perhaps this goodbye was her final gift to the three of us, a poem composed in beautiful unwritten and unspoken words. And that last quiet breath, as with all her breaths, filled our hearts with love.
Susan had hoped to die at home. Her children were both born at home and she felt it was a natural and fitting place to die. She did not want any funeral home intervention or embalming. She chose a wicker casket that would facilitate her decomposition and return to the earth. After her final breath, family and friends came to visit her at the palliative ward. By late evening her sons, friends and family had left, save for her sister Tracey and her dear friend Mary, who stayed behind to wash Susan’s body and dress her.
Mary and Tracey looked at a beautiful green dress with a lovely floral pattern, and a green wool sweater. But as the two women placed the clothes over Susan the colours did not suit her. There was a second dress selected, a softer green one, with purple and pink roses. It was a dress that Susan had worn many times, she loved it. It was free-flowing, with wonderful flowers all over, and pockets in the front! How she came to love pockets in her dresses. So we decided on the pinkish/purplish dress. But the green sweater didn’t match. I bicycled home to Susan’s house less than a kilometer away to find a purple or pink sweater.
While I was gone, Mary and Tracey washed Susan’s body with soap that Mary had brought. The day before, on Tracey’s suggestion, I brought a large purple wool blanket from Susan’s couch to wrap her body in. When I arrived back, the two women had washed Susan and dressed her in the rose and pink dress. I pulled out a bright plum cashmere sweater, moth holes and all. We slipped that onto Susan. With the dress, the sweater, and the blanket, she was bathed in the colours she loved. Susan, of course, looked beautiful.
It was near or past midnight. Tracey and Mary left, having promised to return the next morning when the hospital would be able to process the paperwork and release Susan’s body to the funeral home. I stayed behind to spend the night. Around 1 a.m. I crawled into bed with her. But there wasn’t much room, and Susan seemed quite content to rest where she was, and did not cede any space to me. Instead, I lay on a couch at the foot of her bed, her sentinel for one more night. I woke many times and rose to look at her. I touched her face and head. I kissed her forehead. Her eyes remained open ever so slightly, and her gaze was calm and relaxed. It made me calm and relaxed. Susan believed that whatever happened to her spirit after death happened right away. She did not intend to stick around her body after she died. But I talked to her anyway, like she was still there. I thanked her for everything. I spoke of tender things that lovers share in bed late at night, and my words were met with her soft eyes gazing back at my wet and blurry ones. It seemed completely natural, to stay with her. I knew she was dead but when I looked at her I saw all the different Susans I had come to love over the course of our relationship. A few times during the night when I looked at her, I saw how much of her vitality the cancer had stolen and what it had left behind in its wake. That part was heartbreaking.
I arose the next morning as the grey light of day entered the room. Sipping a coffee, I talked with Susan about the coming day. It was similar to most of our mornings, with time together by a window or outside, musing on thoughts for the day. Tracey arrived around 7 a.m. Mary arrived shortly after that. The nurse placed tags on Susan’s body and clothes. The nurse was very respectful and he supported our wishes to take care of Susan in whatever way we wanted.
Mary, Tracey and I waited for the porter to take Susan down to the morgue. We talked about the experience we were all sharing. We had processed and interpreted and caught sight of specific things, and each one of us took away something unique. It was beautiful to hear how the two women spoke of Susan’s death, and how they had lovingly taken care of her body. Now we had to trust the people in the morgue to be kind to Susan, because we couldn’t go with her after that.
Later that morning the porter arrived and asked us if we wanted to spend any last minutes with the deceased. I told him the deceased’s name. He nodded. Then he asked us if we’d like to spend any more time with Susan. I can’t recall what I said, but invoking Susan’s dark sense of humour I made a slight joke. We all laughed, and I think that gave him some idea of who she was, and how prepared we were. Then he said he had heard from the nurse that we wanted to accompany Susan down to the morgue. We all nodded. He said that was against hospital protocol, but that he was going to let us do it anyway. Big smiles all around. He transferred Susan to a gurney and placed a black cover over her body, which kind of bothered me. I am not sure if it was to provide some modesty for Susan, or to save others from seeing a dead body. We rode down in the elevator to the basement where a security guard arrived to open a large metal door. This was as far as we could go. He peeled back the black cover from Susan’s face and offered us one last look. Tracey and Mary embraced and cried. I smiled. My last looks had come during the night, as Susan’s eyes gazed into mine. I had already seen all I needed to say goodbye. He rolled Susan behind the big door, and that was the last time I saw her body.
Susan was buried in a private ceremony the next day, Sunday.
I was quite stressed for the remainder of Saturday, the day after Susan died, as I did not like leaving her unattended. I had to place my trust in the universe. Serendipitously, her body was retrieved from the hospital by an old grade school friend of hers, who had recently taken on a funeral director’s position. It was comforting to know that a friend was taking care of her. In Quebec, only a funeral home can transport a body. Susan and I were quite certain that her body and wicker casket would have fit in the back of my ’99 Volvo station wagon. But she did not die at home, and I am also quite certain her body would not have been released to me from the hospital if I backed my car up to the morgue doors. On Sunday, her body was driven about 125 kilometers outside of Montreal to Knowlton. Her family has a country home there.
The family, the pallbearers and I arrived at her parents’ house. We were invited to pick flowers from Susan’s mom’s garden and then we walked up through a field and woodland trail that brought us to the cemetery. Susan’s body was already there. The pallbearers, Selma Greenberg, Jackie Cohen, Miriam McCormick and Mary Harvey, each put a hand on the casket. The man who had driven Susan out was a bit nervous, as he wanted there to be 6 people. Susan’s casket weighed about as much as two sparrows in a straw hat. But he was concerned, so he helped them. It was great to see all these women carrying Susan. She would have been so pleased. The casket was laid to rest across her grave. Mary Harvey led a beautiful ceremony and we all had a chance to place a flower on Susan’s casket while we recalled a fond memory of her. It was a wonderfully warm day. And a light rain began to fall. Not droplets of water, but more like a misty sprinkle.
Honouring Susan’s gift as a writer, Mary had brought some bits of paper and some water-based ink pens. We were invited to write a word to/about Susan, and Mary put them all in a cotton bag and placed them on her casket. Susan was lowered into the ground, and her dad and brother planted a pin cherry tree at her head. Some of us placed some dirt at the base of the tree, and it was watered. The tree will blossom white flowers each spring. Mary had also brought biodegradable ribbons that people could tie on her tree if they wanted. It was a participatory event, such a beautiful way to honour Susan. No one had to wonder what to do with their hands because we were so active! Those of us who had been to other burial ceremonies knew how lucky we were to be in the presence of so much love and compassion. The entire ceremony was serene and peaceful and graceful, just like Susan.
Slowly, everyone made their way back down the woods to the house. The funeral home guys packed up their stuff and drove away. The only people left were Jackie, Mary, Miriam, Susan’s son Nathan, myself, and John, the man who drove the tractor that dug the hole Susan’s body now lay in. John quietly and unobtrusively was waiting for everyone to leave so he could fill in the grave. Nathan had removed his shirt and was sitting next to his mom’s grave. I talked to Jackie and she said she thought he might want to put some earth on his mom’s grave. I went to him and asked him. He said that ever since he was a little boy he always imagined that he would be the one who buried his mom when she died. I asked him if that was what he wanted to do. He said yes. Okay, let’s do it. There was one shovel near the fresh soil. Nathan picked it up and started shoveling earth onto Susan’s casket. John brought more shovels and a rake.
Mary, Jackie, Miriam, and I helped Nathan bury his mom. As Jackie noted, Susan would be so thrilled. It was hard work in the humid air but we soon had it filled in. Nathan groomed the top with care and attention and smiled as he smoothed out the edges. I think her friends discovered this act was unexpectedly loving and sacred. Unexpected in that no one really thought that doing it might feel like this. And for Nathan, well, he had thought about it. Long ago. And now, he had completed his boyhood imaginings and taken good care of his mom.