My Sister, Marlene Part Three
by Joy Bach
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My brother Tony’s wife, Marlene, has been removed from “life support”, but continues to breathe on her own. I call Tony and he tells me of the arrangements he has made. Tomorrow (Friday) Marlene will be transported from Denver to Colorado Springs to a hospice run by St. Francis Hospital. He describes how it’s at the foot of Pikes Peak, on Pikes Peak Blvd. My heart aches for him.
Friday morning (Dec. 11th) and I’m packing again. My husband, John, and I are leaving around noon for Spokane. I wash my hair, brush my teeth and get ready. Suddenly, in my mind, I’m traveling down 25 South in Colorado. I see the scenery pass by and view Marlene in the back of an ambulance, being ministered to by gentle hands. And then she’s back home in Colorado Springs. She travels through the city streets, going toward the mountain, and her final destination, where she will make her one last journey. I think, “She must be there now”.
I call information for Colorado Springs, ask for a hospice that has the name St. Francis in it, and is on Pikes Peak Blvd. The phone rings. I give them Marlene’s name and am informed they are just putting her in her bed. I ask to speak to Tony. I tell him I traveled with Marlene down the highway. He tells me the phone was ringing at the nurse’s station with my call just as they were wheeling her by the desk. I get goose bumps. She is now removed from all tubes and machines. And so we wait some more.
Saturday (12-12-98) 6:00 pm. I have carried my cell phone with me continuously. It’s my connection to Tony. We are staying with friends in Spokane. They are having a Christmas party for their Sunday School class. I go to the bedroom for a minute. My phone rings. I pull it out of my pocket and it says, “One missed call”. I panic. I quickly punch in Tony’s number. It’s busy. Then I hear a strange sound coming from somewhere in the bedroom. It’s coming from John’s cell phone. I answer it. It’s Tony. Marlene is declining. Her extremities are swelling and she is turning bluish. And I am helpless to do anything. I say “Keep in touch”. I keep my phone turned on and beside me all night. Just waiting…waiting. I’m restless. I don’t sleep well. Why isn’t there a release?
Sunday, 1:30 pm. (13th) Back home. I call Tony and listen to the update on his answering machine. I call the hospice. Tony and his daughter, Viki, have both been there. Marlene is worse. She has a temperature and her blood pressure is high. Her heart rate is very fast and her eyes are open. They are giving her morphine every four hours to keep her comfortable.
“Do you want to talk to her?”
I feel the jolt of those words travel through my whole body. I thought she was in a coma. Talk to her? “Yes”, they tell me. “We don’t know if they can hear or not. We believe they can. We’ll hold the phone to her ear if you want to talk to her.”
I’m not ready for that yet and I say “No.”
9:00 pm. I call the hospice. Tony and Viki have both been there. Marlene now has mottling on her knees. This means the blood is pooling. I ask if I can talk to her…and then wonder if I can do this. I hear a noise getting louder and louder, but no one says “Here’s Marlene”. Then the nurse talks to me and asks “Were you talking to her?” “No, I didn’t realize it was time”. Which means that loud noise was her breathing. I now understand what the term “labored breathing” means. I literally get sick in the pit of my stomach. Marlene has to be exhausted.
They place the phone by her ear again. I call her by name and say “Marlene, it’s Joy”. Suddenly the breathing stops…then starts again. I tell her I love her. “Goodnight. I’ll see you in the morning”. The nurse says I can call and talk to her anytime. The connection is severed and I am so restless.
I call Tony. He’s struggling and is exhausted. Plans have been made for cremation and a plaque in the rose garden. It’s so hard to hear his voice crack…to know how badly he’s hurting.
It’s past my bedtime. John goes to bed. I go to a bubble bath. I talk to Marlene in my mind. “Marlene, it’s time to let go. You’ve worked long and hard and now you need to rest. Jesus is waiting for you.” I talk to her of the people who have already gone on. “Say hi to Vera. And what about Betsy? You can hold Betsy…and see Aunt Anna and Uncle Bert. Tony needs to rest. You need to let go.” And then I talk about Misty, their beloved dog who had to be put to sleep about a year ago. Some of Marlene’s last words were “I’m going to go find Misty”. Marlene is so clear in my mind. And I feel such restlessness.
11:45 pm. I look at my crocheting project. My crochet hook dangling from a loop in the middle of a row. That’s where I was last Saturday when Tony called. Eight days ago. Some of the longest days of my life.
Monday (Dec. 14th) I have lots to do to play catch-up. Christmas presents to wrap; laundry to wash and iron. But I can’t seem to quiet my spirit. I can’t focus my mind. I pace. And I never pace. I feel like I need to run down the street. The day goes on. I overeat. Something isn’t right somewhere.
I’m in the bedroom, folding the clothes on the bed. Suddenly I feel a breeze, like the window was open. Just briefly. Just enough to get my attention. I look up. What was that? And then I notice. I’m calm. No more restlessness. While I’m marveling over that, I hear the geese going over. And more geese. And more geese. How many geese are in the sky? I run to the back yard to see the formations going over. There are no formations. Just geese circling over my back yard, honking loudly, on and on. I stand and watch. I’ve never seen them do this before.
I call the hospice, ask about Marlene, and then ask to talk to her. My day doesn’t seem complete without my short phone call to her. And every time I say, “Marlene, it’s Joy”, she pauses in her breathing and then starts up again. Her breathing is much quieter today. I don’t talk long, but I feel connected.
That evening when I talk with Tony, he tells me the hospice called him at 5:00 this morning and told him to come. Yet she’s still hanging on. What is keeping her here? The nurses asked him if she was afraid to die. That’s not it. It’s like she’s waiting for something.
I tell him about the breeze and the geese. He has been restless, just like me. But guess what? This afternoon, a feeling came over him like the surge of the surf when you stand in it. And then he was at peace.
As I water my houseplants, I come to the ivy setting on the treadle sewing machine. The old sewing machine was my mother’s. And the ivy growing in the pot is a start from my mother’s ivy that set in the kitchen window as I was growing up. Marlene is the reason I have this plant; a piece of history. She took a start from mom’s plant and then sprouted one for me. When they brought me the sewing machine, they also brought me the plant. They belong together. Another reminder of Marlene and her thoughtfulness.
Tuesday (Dec. 15th) I slept good last night for the first time since this all started. I am at peace. I know everything is going to be OK. I don’t know that she is going to be healed and suddenly wake up. But it’s OK. I go to work for a little while. My cell phone has become an extension of my body. It connects me to Tony. I want to be there if he needs me. And I am waiting for the call to say, “She’s been released from this realm”.
Once again I call the hospice, ask about Marlene, and then ask to talk to her. It’s become part of my routine. I hear her breathing, soft and natural. I say, “Marlene, it’s Joy” and she pauses briefly in the rhythm of her breathing, then resumes. I feel connected. I believe she hears me somewhere. I’m just not sure it’s in that body.
Wed. (Dec. 16th) Another beautiful day. I listen to Christmas music and make plans to have my granddaughter, Rebecca, come over and put up the village and nativity. We are skipping the tree this year. (2:30 pm) Rebecca and I start emptying the Christmas boxes, sorting through tree ornaments and village pieces. We make short work of it and are just finishing when John calls about 4:00 pm to say he has to work late. Maybe Rebecca and I can just meet him someplace and we’ll eat dinner together at 4:30. I put the empty boxes away, tell Rebecca to get her coat on and we head out the door.
A very strong feeling comes over me. “Call Marlene”. I glance at the clock. 4:13 pm. If I call her now I will be late meeting John. I’ll just call her when I get back. I am already in the garage when I very clearly get the message, “Call her now”. A bewildered Rebecca watches as I go back in the house and pick up the phone, punching in the numbers from memory.
I ask about Marlene. They say she’s close, but they’ve been saying that since Monday. Tony just left to go eat in the cafeteria. Once again I ask to talk to Marlene. I know the procedure. They put me on hold, someone goes to her room, picks up the phone and puts it to her ear. I hear her breathing and start telling her about Rebecca and me putting up the village and the nativity. Her breathing pauses as usual. But it doesn’t start again. I actually say, “Marlene, I don’t hear you breathing”. And then I realize that my voice has been going into silence. The word “wooden” comes to mind. She’s not there. I panic. Can it be that she permanently stopped breathing while I was talking to her? I hang up.
As I drive to meet John, I can still feel that “wooden silence”. The appendage I have acquired over the last few days is still with me; my cell phone. And I expect a call.
Sitting in the booth at Red Robin, life going on all around me, my phone rings. It’s Tony’s voice. “Marlene’s fight is over”. It ended about 5:15 pm mountain time. My mind calculates that would be 4:15 pm my time. I see the question in John’s eyes, and I nod to him. He gets my message and reaches for my hand. Tony doesn’t say much. He’s got a lot of phone calls to make. And I am left with an overwhelming feeling. I know I was talking to her when she stopped breathing. That is too much for me to wrap my mind around.
I share my thoughts with John on the way back to the lab to drop him off. I call my daughters and tell them about Marlene. But I can’t quite talk about that last phone call I made. It is just too awesome to verbalize right now. My mind is still overwhelmed at bedtime and John holds me close.
Thursday (Dec. 17th) I need verification, especially before I talk Tony. I call the hospice and ask to speak to someone who remembers me calling yesterday. I get passed to several people before I talk with Ruth, the nurse who took the phone to Marlene’s room for me. She reads me Marlene’s chart. “Patient was on phone with her sister when she ceased breathing”. It is true. I was telling her of Rebecca and the village at her moment of release. Ruth explains she took the phone to tell me, but I had already hung up. I thank her for her loving care and concern. And then I sit…and sit.
Where did that message come from? I already know. Why me? What am I supposed to do with it? Is something more expected of me now?
I call Tony. He’s doing OK. He shares about the sunset he enjoyed as he ate last night, watching the beautiful colors. A flock of geese landed on the little lake outside the window, flying in two by two. He believes Marlene waited until he left the room to let go. And then I share my story of a connection that was there at the end. I was with her. Even as I write these words, I feel so overwhelmed at the awesome power that could send me a message in Washington to call Marlene at exactly the moment of her release in Colorado.
Tony and I keep in touch. We share experiences. We talk and talk. We ponder why it took her so long to let go. The more we talk, the more we agree. She was waiting, mostly for Tony to be able to accept it. She couldn’t go until he was ready.
But there’s more. She gave me a gift. Even though I know I’m a Christian, the thought of facing God at the judgment has been a fearful thing. I was so programmed by my mother that God was something to be terribly afraid of that the thoughts of seeing Him face to face have been terrifying. As I became more comfortable being around Marlene as she lay there, I became more at peace with death. Talking to her daily on the telephone made it easier for me to recognize her all around me. Being with her at her final moment of release is a sweet memory, tinged with awesome power.
I think back to some of the things I said in her hospital room and when I talked with the family. Things like, “She would be mortified at us looking at her like this”. Trying to be so careful to not do anything that she wouldn’t have wanted us to do. I now believe she was in a realm that was way past caring what we did to or with her body. Our puny efforts on earth could not possibly affect her where she was. I believe she was in that room with us, watching over us, trying to help us cope with what was happening and lead us to peace about it.
And I wait for the leading…the understanding…of what I am to do with my awareness of a whole new dimension. I’ve had another layer removed from my inner eyes. I’ve seen God at work with awesome power. Yet that mighty force was also tender…loving the dying and the grieving.
I want to tell everyone. It’s like I know a secret and I want to share it. It’s cause for celebration! Yet I am aware I must constrain my exuberance. Others have not been where I have. Some don’t even want to hear. They are comfortable in their daily routine of life. And so I wait again, this time for the right opportunity to try to express my understanding of the awesome power I’ve seen at work.
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Joy, I'm really glad you finished this story. You expressed the emotion and the experience in so much detail. You brought me right back to the time I watched my sister die in the hospital over a 30 day period. I could never verbalize it as you did, but I experienced it once again through your words. Good writing.