When we sat down on the ferry, Dan and I had been traveling for almost twenty-four hours since we left our hotel in Mexico. My cell phone rang and I wasn’t sure I wanted to begin the “back in the country” reality. I looked at my phone and the debate ended, it was Jane; I always take calls from my friend Jane. We had a few meals with Jane and Bob at our daughter’s wedding in Sayulita, but given the swirl of being the bride’s parents, it had not been enough time together. She called to say that she was getting some medicine for Bob and their road trip to Portland to deliver the car Bob bought his brother was delayed a few hours. Her voice sounded fine and all seemed to be well. After taxiing home, my phone dinged…a text from Jane: “Pray. Chest pains. Driving to the hospital.”
It made our entry into reality sobering. I knew her sister or a friend would be with her. I knew not to ask questions at that time and I texted back “praying”. Time stood still as I began unpacking and walked from room to room with my phone in hand. An hour later another ding: “Torn aorta. In surgery.” My heart thumped and I ran to find Dan. Stunned with the news, we stopped, sat, prayed together. Time stood still even though the clock hands moved. Thirty minutes later, ding: “Arrested during surgery. Keep praying.” What? “Arrested” did that really mean what I thought it meant? Once again I found Dan and we prayed. Nothing was more important than that. Who cares about laundry? This can’t be happening! But it was. My heart raced as I prayed for Bob’s heart and felt cocooned in shock that allowed me to keep unpacking.
Four hours later I got a call from Jane. But it wasn’t Jane, it was Mary Ann, (her best friend since kindergarten) using Jane’s cell phone. “She says she’ll fall apart if she hears your voice so I am calling for her. Becky, the surgeon just left the family waiting room. It is bad. It is really bad. I am going home to spend the night with her after we eventually see him in recovery in two more hours. It will be a long road. It’s bad.”
The timetable of Bob’s life bobbed up and down like a lifesaver in tumultuous seas. Our evening calls were hallowed moments where I rushed to my closet knowing it was the best place to talk and not be disturbed. I hung on every word as Jane recounted the day, physicians’ conversations and Bob’s beautiful, blank blue eyes that stared back at her. “Becky, I don’t think he’s in there.” Saturday evening I went to bed thinking they would disconnect him in the morning. Morning came, and the hope was back after the surgeon called Jane at her home. “He needs more time”, the surgeon said.
Some evenings Jane began the call by saying, “talk to me about your day. Talk to me about something normal.” And I did even though I didn’t want to. One evening we laughed and laughed and laughed even more. “Thank you, Beck, for making me laugh. I needed that.” Downstairs my family waited to hear how Bob was. How Jane was. How could I tell them we had laughed together for almost a half an hour?
Finally, after being in a shared cardiac recovery room for days, Bob was moved to a private room. Jane texted a different tone: “Holding Bob’s hand in a sunny room. There is no other place I want to be. I am at peace with my Bob.” Was it time to begin to have more hope? Is this the time, because hundreds of people were praying, that limbs will move and eyes will see and recovery will truly begin? Can I hope for a miracle?
The surgeon was a man of hope. He is the talk of the floor, Jane said. He is young. He is amazing. Jane really likes him. He was the beacon that allured her to believe that Bob could recover. “I have seen people come out of states like this after surgery. He needs more time. We must give him more time.” So MRI’s and CT scans were postponed. Our evening phone calls remained holy and Mary Ann went to Florida and Amy became my point person to call during the day to find out how Jane was doing.
I kept asking when she wanted me to come. Jane kept saying, not yet. And then after a few days in Bob’s private room and a consultation with the neurologist and the surgeon, palliative care was called in and everything changed. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run and leave my responsibilities behind. I fell to the floor and pounded the carpet and moaned, “no!” I cannot bear this for my friend. I love Bob too! I hate this God! Please No! But surrender does come and peace and love remain. It is not what I think of God and what He is doing, but rather, what God thinks of me and Jane and all of us. And, I believe, that God loves. Only loves.
Friends came to stand by Bob’s bed and say their goodbyes. Jane and Bob’s sisters and brother monitored the visits. Some people said they wanted to remember Bob alive and would not come and others came quietly and stood vigil at the foot of his bed. Some came to thank Bob for everything he had done for them. It seemed all too soon, that it was time for Jane to kiss her Bob and hold his hand as the nurse took out the tube that allowed him to breathe. The ambulance came and took him to Kobacher House, a Hospice facility and Jane was driven home to pack her suitcase to spend her final nights with Bob.
Hospice care brings holiness like nothing I have ever experienced. When my father was at Kobacker House for nineteen days I existed in a space like no other. The nurses seem to have their feet simultaneously in heaven and on earth. It is the hallowed place where we all end crying, “your will be done, Father. Take this cup away, but if you don’t, your will be done.” Like Jacob surrendering with God after wrestling all night, we eventually bow and concede in the darkness when we are utterly alone. That is when God is closest. The two nights Jane was there, the nurse helped tuck her in next to the love of her life. It is her story to tell and the holiness of it is a gift when she tells it. It is not mine to share. Although we are free falling in the darkness, we are not alone. Jesus holds us and we breathe when breath seems unimaginable. He alone sustains us.
Bob died at 1:00 am and it was Jane who noticed and then consoled the nurse when his death was confirmed. She texted me the next morning and without consultation I knew it was time to go. Our days together were full and simple and there was a rhythm of sorrow and laughter and remembrance. The days passed far more quickly than I could have imagined.
We got up at 3:00 a.m. the morning I flew home. Jane brewed coffee and we sipped sustenance and warmth into our bodies at her kitchen table before Jane drove me to Port Columbus airport. We’ve spent a lifetime going to that airport together. We hugged and held each other. She surprised me with a care package filled with food friends had brought. Friends who needed to bring food to ease their own grief.
The Eucharist I savored for three days, however, was the chocolate peanut butter Cliff bar that should have been eaten on their road trip to Portland. Each bite I took was sobering and brought tears. Eating each bite seemed like the betrayal of a dream.
Now my dream has shifted from wishing Jane and Bob a great trip West to blessing the bounty of his eternity. We are each a passing presence, a breath with flesh and dreams. One breath we are here and the next we become the tears of the living and the laughter of heaven. How do we bear the suddenness and cruelty of death and not lose the delight and sweetness of life? It is not by merely vowing to live each day to the fullest. Each day is already full. We are to drink the cup of sorrow and celebrate the meat of resurrection. It is our meal, our chocolate peanut butter Cliff bar. Fair winds and blue skies, Bob.
Becky Allender lives on Bainbridge Island with her loving, wild husband of 36 years. A mother and grandmother, she is quite fond of sunshine, yoga, Hawaiian quilting and creating 17th Century reproduction samplers. A community of praying women, loving Jesus, and the art of gratitude fill her life with goodness. She wonders what she got herself into with Red Tent Living!