The cardboard box had a secret.
My dad had just returned from an errand. “Oh, Nancy’s still in the car, I’ll be right back.” He came up the stairs with a box in his arms, tenderly holding it.
On the outside, it looked just like your regular, average, run-of-the-mill box, but on the inside, it held the cremated remains of my step-mother.
“Do you want to hold her?” my Dad asked. He had tears in his eyes as he passed the box to my brother and then to me.
I was surprised at the heft of the box–it weighed about five or six pounds. Not really what I was expecting. Of course, I wasn’t really expecting to be holding my step-mom in a box, either.
In fact, I wasn’t prepared for anything that had happened over the past thirty-six hours. I got a call from Dad Monday night. “Hi. Nancy’s taken a turn. It’s only a matter of days now. You should think about coming soon.”
This was not the news I was prepared for. We had just gone to visit my Dad and Nancy the day before. She wasn’t in great shape but certainly I though we had a few more weeks left with her. To get this call was a shock. How could things have gone downhill so quickly? What happened to the weeks we had left, now it’s a matter of days, possibly hours? I hung up the phone and sat on the bed. So many trivial things were running through my head: what about work? How much bereavement time do I have? Should I call Mom? Does my brother know? When can he be here? What am I going to wear to the funeral?
The thought of impending death of a loved one really puts a wrench in your normal thought processes. I sat on the bed a few minutes longer thinking of nothing and everything at the same time. I finally got up and started packing an overnight bag. I didn’t know what to take with me or how much to take, so I just kept it simple. Change of clothes, deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrush. I knew I’d have to come back home anyway, so why burden my already heavy mind with “black slacks or skirt?”
It was about 7:00 p.m. and Jason wasn’t home from work yet so I sat down on the couch and pretended to watch television until he came home. I flipped mindlessly through the channels several times until I finally landed on the TV Guide channel. Why flip through channels when I can watch one channel specifically devoted to showing what’s on the other channels?
Jason came through the door, a smile on his face and a warm greeting in his voice.
“Hi, Erri!” he said cheerfully. He came to sit down next to me on the couch and saw my bag. “What’s going on?”
“Dad called. He said Nancy won’t make it through the weekend. I’m going down in the morning to be with everyone.”
“Oh, Erin, I’m so sorry.” He reached out for my hand and started stroking my fingers tenderly.
I sighed heavily. “I can’t get over it, J. She was ok yesterday, you know? Dad said she just went downhill over the last 24 hours….the hospice nurse came and talked with everyone and at this point, she’s just trying to make Nancy as comfortable as possible. I feel so helpless right now. I would give anything to make her better….” Tears started slipping down my face. I made no effort to stop them as I knew that there would be more to come in the following days.
I talked with Jason a bit longer about our plans–I would be going down to see the family alone while Jason stayed behind to stay at work and take care of the dog and I’d come back home to get him when…..when Nancy passed. We sat on the couch for a while longer, just sitting and not talking. The rest of the night went on as usual–we ate supper, we watched some more television and went to bed. I slept surprisingly well that night and I felt guilty about that. How can I be so rested when my step-mom is dying?
The alarm went off the next morning and I got up and did my usual routine. Jason got up about a half hour later. We said our goodbyes and I hugged him probably a bit tighter than I should have. I kept thinking of a fortune I had gotten in a fortune cookie a few years ago: “The only way to love something is to realize that it might be lost.” Very fitting for our situation, I thought.
“See you later, J. I’ll keep in touch. Love you.”
“Love you, too. Give your dad a hug for me, ok? And Nancy, too.”
The drive down to my Dad’s house was short compared to other trips. I don’t remember speeding but perhaps I was. I was convinced I’d get to the house and Nancy would have gone while I was driving down. I was trying to mentally prepare myself for my dad’s grief and kept repeating over and over in my head, “you can do this, Erin, just be there for Dad.” I wished desperately for my brother and sister-in-law. They live in Idah0. I had talked to Margo, my sister-in-law, the night before and she had just said to call us immediately when “It” happens so that she and Nate can leave Idaho as soon as they can in order to make it to Nebraska in good time. They had decided upon driving the 1200 miles from Twin Falls to Dad and Nancy’s house and the trip would take them almost 12 hours. I promised I’d let them know.
I made it to the house and was surprised by the amount of cars out front. I don’t know why–death was near and everyone wanted to see Nancy one last time. I pulled up to the curb behind a fancy-looking sports car with personalized plates that said “PASTORD.”
“Who the heck is that?” I said out loud. “Pastored?” I shook my head in a “whatever” fashion and got my bag from the back seat. I walked across the street and up the stairs to the front door. There was a note on the door that said, “Please don’t ring doorbell. Come on in.” I timidly pushed the door open and slowly stepped inside. The scene was vastly different than it was 48 hours earlier. In place of the oversized recliner that Nancy had made “her spot” for the past few months was a hospital bed with an IV stand behind it. Nancy was laid out in the bed. I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping or had just regressed so quickly that she was no longer conscious. Every now and then, she’d let out a loud moan and writhe in bed, pushing the blankets that were around her legs off. I was transfixed on Nancy that I didn’t notice my Dad had made his way across the room to me.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” he said as he gave me a hug. I snapped out of my stupor and hugged him back. “How was your trip down here?” he asked.
“Good, good. Nice weather out today.”
Leave it to my father to bring up the weather.
“Yeah, it is nice.” And it was. I was grateful for the sun and clear skies, but I also felt that the weather was mocking our pain and it should really be dark, gloomy, and raining instead.
“Come in and get comfortable. We’ve just started eating lunch, so you got here at the perfect time,” Dad said.
I walked through the living room past Nancy’s parents and a guy I didn’t know. The three of them were watching a Kansas City Royals baseball game on t.v. As I walked past them, they all turned toward me and offered sad smiles.
“Hi Erin. Good to see you again.”
“Hi Gil. Hi Carolyn. Good to see you guys, too.” I made it to the kitchen and put my bag down under the kitchen table. There was a large amount of food sitting out and Dad was making himself a plate. He must have known what I was going to say because he started telling me who was all here. “You know Nancy’s parents of course, but the other gentleman in the living room is Pastor Dave from the church in Lincoln, ” Ah….the sports car with the personal plates….” And then Kate and Paul are outside and Ash is out running some errands. Lori and Sherry are also outside. Scooter is still in Lincoln, but he’s coming down later this afternoon. Nancy’s brother and his wife are still in Kansas for the time being but were going to try to make it down by tomorrow afternoon.”
I half heard what he was saying because I was distracted by Nancy’s moaning. Again, Dad was a mind reader and said, “Yeah, she’s been like that since last night. Sherry’s been trying to keep her quiet and giving her pain medication, but we can’t tell if it’s helping her or not. The hospice nurse is going to be here later and we’ll make adjustments to her meds.”
He handed me a Styrofoam plate. I couldn’t decide if I was hungry or not. The sounds from the living room had kind of made me lose my appetite but I grabbed a few chips and some lunch meat to be polite. Dad grabbed a beer from the fridge and offered me one as well. “I don’t know about you, but I could one of these,” he said as he handed me a Bud Light. I might not have been hungry, but a beer did sound pretty good. We took our plates and drinks and headed outside to the deck. Sitting at the table out there was my step-sister Katie and her husband, Paul. Nancy’s older sister Sherry was sitting on a lawn chair. Dad and I headed toward the other empty chairs and sat down.
“Hi, everyone.” I said.
All eyes looked up at me as I spoke. Sad eyes, tired eyes. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend what everyone was feeling at this moment. The emotions were running high in this house and for good reason. A person lay dying in the next room and we’re all eating potato salad and coleslaw.
We all sat in silence on the deck and listened to birds chirp their cheery early May songs. This seemed so normal, so very much like a family getting together for a picnic. Very Norman Rockwell. I was busy in my daydream of normalcy when I got hurled back to the present moment with a series of loud moans coming from the living room. Sherry started to get up.
“Sounds like Nancy needs more medication.”
Sherry went inside to tend to Nancy’s pain. The rest of us made small talk.
“Royals are winning.”
“This is good macaroni salad.”
“Those birds sure are singing today. It’s a beautiful day.”
When lunch was finished, we went back inside. Katie and Paul went for a walk. I sat down on a chair in the living room and tried to make myself seem like I wasn’t extremely uncomfortable. I realized at that moment that this was the first experience I’d had with someone dying. I didn’t know how to handle myself. I tried watching the t.v., but that was no good. I finally resorted to staring at the digital picture frame on the coffee table. I watched days, weeks, months, and years flash by. Nancy looking healthy, happy and vibrant. Nancy looking a little more tired than normal, a thin smile stretched across her too pale face. Nancy with tufts of white hair poking out from under her pink Nebraska Cornhuskers hat. Nancy from the past weekend. Yellowish skin, dark sunken eyes, a few wisps of hair, looking so tiny in the t-shirt and sweatpants she had been wearing. She had wasted away to less than half her former self. Cancer is a motherfucker.
A cell phone rang. It was my Dad’s. He excused himself and took the call in the bedroom. After a few minutes, he walked back in, his eyes red and watery. He took out a handkerchief from his back pocket and blew his nose in the loud honk that would always make me dissolve into giggles when I was a little girl.
“Sorry,” he said. “One of Nancy’s work friends.” Why he was apologizing was beyond me. “That’s been the hardest part for me. I do ok and then someone calls and I just get overcome with emotion. I’ve got to work on that.”
We all sat a few more minutes longer, watching the game/pictures when the Pastor spoke up. “Dan, if you don’t mind, I’d like to say a prayer.”
“Of course, Pastor. Please go ahead.”
Pastor Dave walked over to Nancy’s bed, grabbed her hands in his and started praying out loud.
“Dear Heavenly Father, we are asking you to be with your sister Nancy in this dark time. Be with her, comfort her, let her know that this is your plan and your will. We may not understand it, but we just ask that you also comfort us. Ease Nancy’s suffering and bring her home to you. In your name we pray, amen.”
“Thank you, Pastor,” my dad could barely speak. Tears fell on his cheeks and got lost in the stubble on his face. Just when you think your heart can’t break any more, something like that happens and you realize a whole new level of grief. What I wouldn’t give to not feel like this right now….. to have none of this happen right now……
The rest of the afternoon and evening passed by in a blur. The emotion got too much for me at one point and I made my way downstairs to the basement and took a nap on the couch. I hadn’t realized how tired I was and soon found myself in a deep sleep. I had feel asleep when it was light out but was awoken by the sound of loud voices and it was considerably dark. I looked at my watch…..9:30 p.m. Wow. That meant I had been asleep for roughly three hours. I sat up, slightly confused as to what I was doing back at Dad’s house and then Nancy’s moaning brought me back to reality quickly. I sat on the couch a bit longer, gathering my bearings and was about to get up and make my way upstairs again when Dad called down to me.
“Erin? Are you awake? Could you come upstairs, please?”
I sighed and heaved myself up off the couch. I slowly started up the stairs and saw a woman I had never seen before standing at the head of the stairway. She was clutching a book under her right arm. As I got closer, I saw she was also wearing the black shirt and white collar of a pastor. She was a short, round woman with short grey hair and reading glasses perched at the end of her nose. She smiled sadly at me as I made my up the last stair and stood facing her. I smiled politely and she extended her free hand toward me.
“Hello, I’m Pastor Evie. God be with you.”
“Uh….thanks….” I didn’t know what to say in response. I shook her hand and stood there with her for an awkward minute until Dad came over to us.
“Pastor Evie, this is our other daughter, Erin.”
Dad ushered us into the living room where everyone had congregated for the evening. One by one, people were taking turns going up to Nancy in her bed and were whispering into her ear, holding her hand and stroking what was left of her hair. I sat down on a rocking chair next to the front door and could not stop staring at Nancy. I had so many thoughts all struggling to gain their attention in my head, but the one that was winning was the thought that I should have treated her better during the time her and my father were married. I should have realized that while I was angry at the end of my own parents marriage, I should have been happy for the new life they were both leading with their new spouses. Dad always talked about how blissful he and Nancy were together, the good times they’d had over the past five years, but instead of being happy for them, I was overcome with jealousy. Dad would call me on the weekends and tell me stories of the trips he and Nancy had taken….camping in Colorado, going to see my brother in Idaho…..I was upset that Dad was having these adventures without me and Mom….he was doing all the things I wish we had done when I was growing up. How I would have loved to have gone camping just once, but we never did for one reason or another. I had such contempt for Nancy, coming in, stealing my dad away from me and Mom and then running off on grand weekend getaways while we were stuck at home. The nerve of that woman, making my dad so happy and carefree like that.
My tune changed over the past two years, though. I had the realization that while my anger was totally warranted, I needed to stop holding a grudge and come to terms with what happened. I saw how Dad and Nancy acted toward each other and knew that they were truly enjoying each other and I found new respect for Nancy for making my Dad happy. It was hard at first, but I slowly began warming up to Nancy. It kind of surprised me how similar we were, actually. We both loved giving my dad a hard time about his job. He works for an electronics repair company and often deals with cable transmitters. In order to assure they are working properly, he has them hooked up to a television at his work station. We used to tease him when he’d complain about how hard of a day he had; “Well, you know, watching t.v. DOES take a lot out of a person.”
I sat on my chair for a few more minutes, lost in thought, when I realized I had gotten up and walked over to Nancy. I reached down and grabbed one of her hands in mine and gently stroked the top of it with my thumb. I don’t know why I was so surprised it was still warm, but I was. I figured that if everything else inside her was dying, she should feel more……dead to me. The warmth radiating off her was bizarre to me. I stood there with her hand in mine for a few minutes longer and then I put her hand down next to her on the bed and leaned over and gingerly kissed the top of her head. I lingered a bit over her and softly said, “I’m sorry, Nancy.” I moved back before the tears that had started fell on top of her head. I tired to back up into my chair but couldn’t because I hadn’t noticed my dad was standing behind me. He moved next to me and put his arm around my shoulders, pulling me into him. We both stood there, looking down at Nancy. Her breathing was becoming more and more labored as we stood there. Fast, shallow breaths followed by a few second pause, then a gasp and back to fast breathing again.
Cheyen-Stokes respirations as they were called in school.
The Death Rattle.
The end was nearing.
Dad took his arm off my shoulder and kneeled down beside Nancy’s bed. He grasped her hand in both of his and brought them up to his forehead. He started sobbing loudly; great, heaving cries of pain and sadness. He let himself collapse against the metal frame of the bed and continued crying. I stood and watched, my own tears flowing freely down my cheeks and onto the carpet. I could hear everyone else sniffling and I looked around the room for a box of Kleenex. I grabbed the box sitting on a table behind Nancy’s bed and walked around offering some to those who needed them.
Pastor Evie had been sitting in an armchair across the room, reading Bible passages softly this whole time but now was taking the opportunity to read more loudly. She announced she’d like to read Psalm 23 and asked for us to join in if we could.
My own personal religion has wavered over the years and I was doubtful I could remember the verse without faltering on my words, but was surprised to find myself reciting from memory, only stepping over words because Pastor was reading from a different version of the Bible I had been used to.
“The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want…He maketh me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters…..”
We all spoke softly as we said the verse in unison. I couldn’t finish. The moment had gotten to me and I had to sit down. I hunched over in the chair and buried my head into my arms and waited for them to stop speaking. Pastor Evie closed her Bible and walked over to Dad and stood behind him. She placed a chubby hand on his head and silently mouthed a small prayer. In response, Nancy let out a moan and more labored breaths. I noticed the time between her breathing had begun to get longer and longer. I had picked my head up and was staring at Nancy again, not wanting to take my eyes off of her last minutes here on Earth. I think I half expected to see her ethereal form rise up from her body and float above her.
Sensing the end was soon, everyone gathered around her bed, lovingly touching whatever parts of her were closest.
With one last heaving breath, Nancy Sue Hoffmeyer passed on from this world at a little past 11:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 7th, 2009.
My dad looked up at that moment and was still.
“What time is it?! Tell me what time it is!!” he said frantically. “I want to know what time it is!”
Scott spoke up calmly, and told Dad what time it was.
“Thank you, Scott,” he managed behind his tears. “Oh, my beautiful wife….I’ll never love again….”
Everyone was still for a moment but the silence was broken by Pastor Evie saying another prayer. I can’t for the life of me remember what she said. I was stunned. I was heartbroken for my father, for Nancy’s family. I was also surprisingly relieved. The past six months had be absolute hell for Nancy. She was in constant pain. The cancer had started in her liver and spread silently and deadly through her body, settling in her spine, pelvis, lungs, intestines……all she should keep down was Pedialite and even that was iffy. To have her be free of such torment was truly a good thing. No person should have to suffer as she did.
A few months after Nancy died, I was at work checking an elderly man’s pacemaker and he was telling me his laundry list of ailments, which included a bout of intestinal issues that as he described, was “worse than any cancer.” That statement had filled me such rage, I hurried through the rest of his visit before I found myself fired for attacking a patient.
After Nancy stopped breathing and we all got over our initial stunned reactions, the cell phones came out. Family had to be told. Nancy’s mother and father had actually left to go home about an hour before Nancy passed. I recalled Carolyn’s last words to her daughter were, “See you in the morning, sweetheart, ” as she placed a kiss on Nancy’s sunken cheek. Nancy’s brother-in-law Scott made the call to them. I was standing off to the side, close to Dad, wanting to be near him to help him absorb some of his grief, when he got up, wiped his eyes dry with his handkerchief and handed me his cell phone.
“Can you call your brother for me, please?”
I grabbed the phone from him and stared down at the keypad, suddenly totally unaware of how to use a phone. What was I going to say to Nate? I’ve never had to make a phone call like this before. I found my brother’s number in the phone contact list and with a shaky finger, dialed the number. It rang a few times before Margo answered.
“Hello?” She was trying to sound optimistic, but I knew she could tell this wasn’t going to be a pleasant conversation.
“Margo? Nancy’s gone…….” My voice was trembling as I began speaking and I broke down into tears and couldn’t talk anymore.
“Oh no….oh, Erin, oh…..oh god, I’m so sorry. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.” She started crying, too.
I managed to squeak out “ok” and hung up the phone. I had made the call back in my dad’s office and just stood in the darkness for a minute. I took a few deep breaths and walked back into the living room where everyone was milling around. I hate to admit it, but the mood seemed lighter, almost. Like a great weight had been taken off our shoulders. There was an end to her pain and suffering and in this moment, I wish I believed in God and Heaven, as I could have taken comfort in the fact she was now in a better place and looking down on us, trying to let us know she is ok now and someday, we will be too.
This has been a work-in-progress for over a year now. I’d write a bit here and there, stopping only because reliving this time was extremely difficult for me. The guilt and shame I felt for treating another human being as poorly I did to Nancy fills me with such remorse. Dad tries in ernest to tell me that Nancy loved me and understood my feelings, and while that gives me some sort of comfort, it doesn’t make things any better. I guess I should be proud of myself for realizing just how much of a child I was being and accepted her relationship with my father, but that guilt will always gnaw at me for as long as I live.
I know I shouldn’t dwell on the past; what’s done is done…it is what it is, etc, but still. I was not raised to act in such foolish ways. If I could see her one more time, I’d be on my knees and ask for her forgiveness and hope that she is able to accept my apologies. I know she would be able to–she is a much stronger person than I could ever hope to be, and this was made evident in her courageous battle against the disease that stole her life from her.
If you read this story, thank you. If you get anything from it, I trust it is that life is too goddamn short to waste. I know that’s a terrible cliche and I apologize, but it’s the truth.
Again, thank you for reading. If you have any feedback, comments, questions, whatever; please let me know.