Janie, my wife and the mother of our three daughters, for eleven years was a long-time ovarian cancer survivor dating from 1999. In recent months the cancer had metastasized to her lungs and other organs, a spread so severe that surgery and chemotherapy were no longer options. She was also a long-time dialysis patient with a schedule of two days each week, Monday and Thursday, for two hours each day. She had dialysis on Monday, 8 November but because Thursday was November 11, Veteran’s Day, her dialysis appointment was shifted to Friday. We did not take her to dialysis on the following Monday, and she died just three days later on Thursday, November 18 at 9:15 in the evening.
Early in the morning on the Saturday after her last dialysis I was at her bedside and we were talking about going to dialysis on the following Monday. She was very quiet and I was doing most of the talking, and at one point when I paused she said, softly but very clearly, It’s time. When I asked time for what, she again said softly but clearly, It’s time to go. I broke into tears, just as I am now doing while writing this. Choking back my sobs I said that it was not up to her, that God would decide when it was time, not her, and that she should keep fighting until He made that decision. She smiled slightly and sweetly and made no response.
I stumbled on blindly, sobbing and speaking in broken tones and told her that I didn’t want her to leave me, that she couldn’t leave, that I wouldn’t let her leave, that I needed her and our girls needed her, that we would complete almost six decades of marriage on December 13, and that her birthday would be the day after Christmas. I told her that we had 58 years together, all beautiful except for one, and for that year I desperately needed her forgiveness, and I begged her to forgive me—I begged her for forgiveness that I had not earned and did not deserve.
She looked into my eyes for a long moment, then speaking slowly and softly she said, I forgive you, and then she said, You’re a good man. I told her that if she left me I would follow her and be with her, not knowing when but that I would definitely follow her, and I promised her that from that moment on I would make every effort to live my life towards that goal. Her eyes were closed when I told her that and I wasn’t sure whether she had heard me, but then she said, I’ll wait for you, and a few seconds later she said, I’ll tell Jesus you’re coming. I don’t remember any conversation after that. She lapsed into sleep and except for a few precious times that she acknowledged me and others when we spoke to her, she was silent up to the moment she left us.
I had asked her earlier if she wanted a chaplain to come in and she shook her head, but early in the evening on Thursday, November 18, I asked for a chaplain to visit us. Hector Villarreal, a Protestant chaplain, arrived at six o’clock and prayed with her and for her, and for me and our three daughters. He told her that God loved her and wanted her to be with Him, and that He was waiting for her.
The chaplain said that she would draw her last breath on earth, but that she would draw her next breath in heaven. We were at her side when she took her last breath on earth, and we truly believe, then and now, that she took her next breath in the presence of God, and that her spirit, her marvelous soul, never judgmental and so perfect in every other respect, is now complete and happy and whole again, untarnished by toil, trial and tribulations encountered during almost 79 years of life, years that she lived and loved to the fullest—born in 1931, she died just 38 days short of her 79th birthday, December 26. We would have celebrated our 58th wedding anniversary on the 13th of December.
The hospice nurse noted the time of her last breath as 9: 15 PM on Thursday, November 18, 2010. She had lapsed into a coma the day before, and her breathing had become labored, with her mouth sagging open and each breath an audible gasp for air. She was on oxygen, with the maximum allowable flow of oxygen to her nostrils from a bedside tank.
From time to time, depending on whether she seemed to show pain either by sound or movement, the hospice nurse administered liquid pain medication, placing it under the tongue with a syringe. The nurse assured us that the hearing is the final sense to go, and that Janie could hear every word we spoke, so we talked to her right up to that final breath with our hands on her, on her face and smoothing her hair and softly stroking her arms and hands and feet and adjusting the bed covers, each of us in turn professing our love, recalling our favorite times of our lives with her, with all our words interspersed and muffled by sniffs and sobs.
When our daughters left the room, I asked the nurse if she could do anything about the way Janie’s mouth drooped open, twisted and misshapen, drawn down and to the left from the way her head was turned to the side for so many hours. The nurse said that nothing could be done, that it had to be done at the funeral home.
I insisted that we try, and I began trying to place her head differently in an effort to restore her features to a more natural position. The nurse assisted by folding a hand towel and placing it under Janie’s chin, and that helped slightly. Her mouth, however, still sagged to the left and her lips were open and peeled back with her teeth showing. The nurse said that was all we could do, that the rest was up to the funeral home staff.
Everyone except the nurse left the room, but I stayed seated beside the bed with her while the nurse was completing her report, and several minutes later I spoke aloud, saying that my eyes must be playing tricks on me. I thought I had seen a fold in the blanket high on her left chest rise slowly but perceptibly, as if she had slowly inhaled. I watched it intently and after a brief period it appeared to lower.
The nurse either did not hear me or perhaps simply ignored me, and continued with her work. I felt that the blanket fold had moved, but I knew that I could have imagined it, that I was perhaps trying to will my wife to take another breath. The air in the room was very still. The overhead ceiling fan was not on because she never wanted it on.
A few seconds later I again spoke aloud and said that my eyes were still playing tricks on me. I saw the same fold that had moved a few seconds earlier move again, rising ever so slowly but perceptibly and after a brief period I saw it lower. Again there was no response from the nurse. She may have felt that I was so stricken with grief that my imagination was running wild, and that perhaps I was trying to will my wife to breathe, to return to me, to return to life from the other side.
Our daughters had been out of the room since their mother took her last breath, but Kelley, the youngest of the three, asked them if they wanted to come in to see her again. They declined and Kelley came in alone, and as she entered I glanced at her mother’s face and my heart began to pound wildly.
I told Kelley to look at her mouth—it was no longer contorted and sagging. Her lips were closed and her mouth showed a hint of a smile, an uplift at the corners—just a hint of a smile but enough for any observer to see that she looked calm and peaceful and perhaps a bit amused. Kelly told the others that they needed to come in, that there was something they needed to see, and we all marveled at the transformation of Janie’s face—from a grimace to a grin, from a sagging mouth to a smile, and from pain to peace.
When I felt that my eyes were playing tricks on me I was wrong. They were not playing tricks. I believe—no, I know—that I saw the blanket fold move up and then drop back down after a few seconds, and I saw it repeat the movement a bit later.
She did indeed draw her last breath on earth, and it is my honest belief that she then drew her next breath in heaven. I believe that our Creator allowed her to return and draw another last breath on earth, a breath that enabled her to live again, albeit just long enough to correct the awkward position of her lips and her mouth and begin that beautiful smile that she shared with me and with our daughters and with others throughout her 78 years of life on earth. I truly believe that she heard me ask the nurse if anything could be done with her mouth, and I believe—no, I know—that after she took her next breath in heaven, she asked God for a favor and He granted it.
I believe that through the power and grace of God my wife was allowed to return to this life just long enough to slough off all the pain and misery of years of surgeries and chemotherapy and dialysis and several days gasping for breath while under medication for the pain caused by ovarian tumors that almost filled both lungs. I believe the Master sent her back to earth to occupy her body for the brief time she needed to complete the metamorphasis from a chrysalis to a beautiful butterfly, to return that smile to her lips for us before returning to Him. He knew that I needed that, that we needed that, and He gave her the power to do it for me and for our daughters.
Her return to the world of the living, though only for a very brief period, is a miracle because of the miracle it wrought in her appearance. It is for me the epiphany I have longed for and sought for many years. I have always wished for a sign, an unworldly experience I could view as an indication that life does exist after death, that there is a divine presence, that God exists and is responsible for all the good in mankind. That smile on Janie’s face on her last night on earth has given me that sign, and for that I thank God and I thank her.
Sleep well in heaven, my darling.
Postscript: Janie is buried in Fort Sam Houston’s National Cemetery. She lies among military veterans of our wars, many of whom are cited by our nation for bravery and duty performance. Janie is just one of many there, but she is one that deserves every commendation and medal that may exist to commemorate her exemplary life as a wife and mother. Her obituary appeared in the San Antonio, Texas Express-News on Monday, November 22, 2010—click here for the full publication.
The request below appears at the end of the obituary. Perhaps some of the readers of this posting will find it in their hearts to support these or similar organizations with donations, and join in the search for prevention and cures for ovarian cancer and kidney disease, two of the deadliest and most debilitating afflictions known to mankind.
From Janie’s obituary: In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution in her memory to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, P.O. Box 7086, Dallas Texas 75209, http://www.ovarian.org or the American Kidney Fund, 6110 Executive Blvd., Ste. 1010, Rockville MD 20852, http://www.kidneyfund.org
December 5, 2010 at 12:45 am
You, kind sir, owe me a box of tissue.
What had not yet been consumed clearing the tears from fits of laughter has now been exhausted soaking up tears that would give the Valley’s levies a run for their money. Falcon Dam be..er..damned.
Your post transported me in time and space to that moment as if I was there in the room myself. Had it been any more real I could have placed my hand on your shoulder and shared in the wonderment of what you saw with your own eyes. I do believe you saw it, too.
I have now sat here twice at my computer, grieving and mourning the transition of a soul from this place to the next, of someone I know only from your stories, part of a family I have never met. I cannot explain why the pain would feel so real to me. Perhaps this is the sign I needed for myself in stressful times.
I wish I could say things to support your embrace of the pain as a symbol of the strong, loving bond you built and will continue to share. That it is a reminder to reach out to others to share that pain and strengthen those bonds further. It’s a kick in the rear from her to you to celebrate the gift of the time spent here in preparation for what is yet to come. I can see by your words you clearly understand that. In my heart I will hugs to you, your daughters and family much in the way a child of open imagination might will himself or herself to fly. If I try hard enough, I can imagine and hope you will each feel it.
Really, I won’t hold you to the tissue. However, know this yourself my friend. My family will have you to blame for the hugs that are ever so tighter and longer than they were before. And, for that, I thank you and your beloved wife, Janie.
Darn it! Where is that box of tissue!
December 5, 2010 at 12:39 pm
Joel, you have made my day by putting your thoughts in print in commenting on this post. Those thoughts are vividly expressive and uplifting, and I have already shared them with my daughters. They agree with me that few people have the will and the talent to freely and willingly look into their hearts and communicate their thoughts to others, and of those only a few are willing to express such feelings openly. You have touched us with your thoughts, and we gladly accept the blame for your family being hugged tighter and for a longer time. We also accept wholeheartedly those hugs you willed to us, to me and to my daughters and their families. We do feel those hugs. We needed them and we thank you for them—your imagination worked well.
I was especially affected by your saying that It’s a kick in the rear from her to you to celebrate the gift of the time spent here in preparation for what is yet to come. That’s very true and very well put. You may be assured that I will strive mightily to use that time wisely.
Thanks for such beautiful thoughts. I hope to visit with you more in the future.
Mike Dyer (email@example.com)
December 5, 2010 at 10:17 pm
Mike, that is the most beautiful tribute I have ever read. It brought back so many memories of my moms last days and last breath. She also was in a coma but heard every word I said to her. I would ask her to squeeze my hand or something to let me know she heard me but nothing. I told my Mom its ok to go home to the Lord and Daddy, as I leaned over her bed she opened her eyes, took a breath and went home to the Lord and my Dad. Janies reminded me alot of my mom, her tender heart, her giving spirit, she always made me feel like part of the family and the memories I will carry with me of her are all precious. You were so good to her Mike and she loved you for it, you could see it in her eyes. When she talked about the girls and her grandchildren you could see the twinkle in those eyes. We never want to lose the ones we love because we want them forever and someday when God calls us home we will see our love ones again and that is something I look forward to. We need to all learn to live our lives like there may not be another day, appreciate the ones we love and reach out to others. Mike, ty for sharing this with others, it has touched my heart and am sure will touch others. Take care of yourself. Know that you and the girls are in my thoughts and prayers. Love ya’ll, Alyce
December 6, 2010 at 4:00 am
Thanks, Alyce, for all the kind words and thoughts. I know they come from the heart, and it is sweet of you to share them with me. And you are indeed part of our family. You always have been and always will be one with us. By the way, it’s the rare person that can string that many words together and remain coherent. You write well and you really should consider blogging.
Cindy is continuously telling me that it is cathartic, whatever that means. Forgive me for this analogy, but as near as I can determine it means to cleanse, or to purge, somewhat on the order of a suppository. Of course it doesn’t act quite as quickly, but it does work. Give it a shot, and I promise I’ll comment on every post. Take care, keep it under 65 mph and keep in touch—we love y’all, too.
Oh, and just one more thought—if one is without one, one should get one, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. I had one for many years, and then I lost it. At least I thought I had lost it, but now I’m beginning to realize that I have an infinite number of facsimiles in the form of daughters and sons-in-law and grandchildren and thoughts and memories and friends such as you and tangible items, particularly photographs, thanks to Cindy and her Brownie. (I know a joke about Brownies, politically incorrect but funny—ask me about it some time).
And now as Digger O’Dell would say, “I guess I’ll be shoveling on.” (Digger O’Dell was the undertaker on Duffy’s Tavern, an old-time radio show in the 1940s). Again I’ll say, take care, keep it under 65 mph and keep in touch—we love y’all, too.
Okay, just one more thought—if facsimiles don’t work for you, then get a real one—that’s my advice and I’m sticking to it!
February 2, 2013 at 7:20 pm
MIKE – you were given joyous moments with your beautiful wife. Celebrate that special time with her always. God Bless You—–Your friend, Joan