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The walker, the canes, the wheelchair, two oxygen machines – huge and small – the hospital bed, the twin mattress for me on the floor of the dining room next to that bed, the timer alerting us to hit the morphine bolus every half hour, the people bringing food and groceries, the bevy of CNAs, nurses, doctors on speaker phone, the death rattle, family members barreling in and out to lend a hand, indeed, all the physical, spiritual, emotional noise swelled like a cacophonous, punishing Beethoven crescendo played by non-musicians. Finally, on a Saturday night, my doctor daughter-in-law intoned: “Time of death 8:57pm.”

And with that, the 15-month home hospice for my husband’s metastatic pancreatic cancer, grueling from the get-go, ended. 

Grave, black-suited men brought a stretcher and a gorgeous, hand-embroidered cloth to cover him as they removed the body. Our exhausted family team decamped to their own houses to resume the lives they’d put on hold. Ambien gave me the first full night’s sleep in who knows how long.

But in the morning, the hush in the house was like a major snow had fallen indoors. I wandered, lost, among the in-patient detritus eclipsing the house’s art and colors.

What now? I’d obsessed about The Future, but not given a thought to that moment.

Even in my numb stupidity, I realized it was Sunday. I could go to church, which is my habit. Normally I’m beyond grateful for my faith and all that comes with it, despite being insulted about it to my face occasionally. All I could feel that day was a small whiff of relief to find a next step: get dressed and leave that house.

I sat in a back pew, which is not my habit, buried where I hoped people wouldn’t be distracted by me and my distress.

After Communion, Nina came over and told me to “move all that crap over.” I love Nina. Blunt. Unfailingly helpful. Charmingly dressed. I shifted my purse, coat, and tissue wads so she could sidle up to me and ask what was going on. 

She and all the regulars knew exactly what was going on during those months. As recently as two weeks earlier, Roger had come to church with me, enjoying, frankly, the fuss people made to get him settled, to bring Communion to him, to mind him until I sent a text saying the car and I were out in front. They’d seen his 6’4” body shrivel from handsome health to the Auschwitzian skeleton he’d become. Nina needed no background.

“Roger died last night.”

She pulled back with disgust or exasperation; I couldn’t tell. She shook her head and finally scoffed: “Men!” 

Men? “Men!” was her take on the situation? Totally startled, my jaw dropped, eyebrows to my hairline. What was she thinking?

“Men, Nina?”

“I had two of them and they both died on me. I don’t want another one. I’m still mad at Ray for leaving me.”

I burst out laughing. So, she laughed. Then the two of us got the giggles so bad we couldn’t stop. We struggled for composure but were just two bad girls cracking up during the solemnity of post-Communion. “Men!” exploded up a Hoover dam of darkness letting the stinky, deathy, tired, confused feelings flood forth to find whatever expression they could.  

Maybe the touch on my shoulder was to get us to shut up. But another touched my arm, my neck, my head. Nina indicated I’d better take a look behind me. I’ll never know how many were standing behind me, but I remember them as a large crowd. Some with hands on, others just stood close, but present, collectively, as a silent, but heartfelt version of the corporate body of Christ which said:

“You are not alone..”

First published in a heavily edited version in The Sun Magazine, December 2023

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