My dear Great Aunt, whom our family affectionately called Pig, passed away in early December, just a few days shy of our family Christmas gathering also known as "the tree". Pig's husband, Uncle Russell, went to be with the Lord years ago, but he coined the phrase, "See ya at the tree!" We definitely felt the empty places around the tree this year... of those that once gathered with us but who now gather in heaven.
I had never been with someone when they passed from this life to the next, but that time was so sacred. I will never forget it.
In talking with the Hospice Aide, holding Pig's hand or stroking her hair, talking to her or just quietly being there, I had a lot to think about. I knew she was leaving us, we all did – there wasn't a hope that she would wake up and ask for a cup of coffee or ask me why I was there so late like she had done the week prior. Then she had told me to go home to my family. Not now. No, she was tired and ready to go home. I was almost asking God to come and get her quickly, so that she would be free of the body that was betraying her. Free of the pain of letting go. Because she was really doing that – she was letting go of us with each meal she refused, each sip of water that she could no longer accept. Even as she kept back her words, using her strength only to communicate the most important things, she was leaving us. The last word I heard her say was “wonderful”. And forever I think when I say that word or hear someone else say it, I will hear Pig's voice quietly in my ear, “wonderful”.
Nanette, the Hospice Aide, came about six hours before Pig left us. She was such a joy; truly an angel on earth. One of the keenly sensitive and discerning among us. A washer of feet. Early in the evening she shared with me that there seems to be something about the last bath; that each time she has given someone their last bath a change seems to occur. And she didn't pretend that there was something magic about the bath, or that she had any special power or anything. She gave every bit of glory to the Lord, and said she is humbled to be about His work with those close to death and their loved ones. I know it is a calling on her life, and I am ever thankful that she answered.
Back to the bath... I really thought Pig had already had her last bath when Nanette and I were talking. She seemed so close to the end. But at about 10pm, Pig began to moan. They had lots of medication in her to ease the pain, to clear up the fluid building in her lungs, and to ease her coughing. She had been quiet and still for hours. We had been timing her breaths since early in the afternoon. I walked over to the bed and took Pig's hand, and began to sing It is Well and Amazing Grace. Nanette picked up the harmony after a little bit and we sang together. Pig opened her eyes and looked at me during Amazing Grace, and then she relaxed and closed them never to open them again. She was saying goodbye.
I commented that since she had quit talking she had moaned when she had needed a change of clothing, and sure enough that was the case. Pig had not had her last bath afterall. Mom had left a clean gown, and Nanette and I gently and lovingly bathed her and got her changed. Of all things, I was thinking about my great grandmother, whom I never knew, and who was probably the person who had given Pig her first bath soon after she named her Mildred Maxine. Perhaps even before. And I pondered what her thoughts must have been at that time; I am sure they were much like mine the first time I bathed my own daughter, my first newborn. Such love and care; worried about her umbilical chord, careful that the water wasn't too cold or too hot. Thankful when it was over that she hadn't slipped out of clumsy hands! And then peace afterwards as she slept all warm and pink and beautiful. I felt the same looking at Pig. This dear great aunt who had co-grandmothered me and all of us with my Ma-Maw. Who had co-mothered my aunt and my own mother. I felt sure in that moment that just as I had not considered my daughter's last bath the first time I bathed her that my great-grandmother had not considered Pig's last bath or who would be there to bathe her and watch her sleep afterwards. My hope was that she would be proud – that she would know the love that poured out of her daughter to all of her descendants, that we would surround her in response to that love until the very end.
It was some time later; I was alone in the room with Pig crocheting a scarf for a friend. I felt it an appropriate way to quietly pass the time, as Pig had sat patiently with me as a child and taught me the art of yarn, later the art of quilting. And I just thought I'd check the time. It was midnight, the first moment of December 5th, 2008. What would have been Pig and Russell's 67th wedding anniversary had come and gone. Some of us had sweetly commented that perhaps she was waiting to celebrate the momentous occasion in person with him in heaven... but that had not been the case. I walked to her bedside, stroked her hair, and told her what day it was. Then it occurred to me to time her breathing - almost immediately when I told her the day I had seen a change. From 12:02 – 12:03, three breaths. My heart sped up as hers slowed down. Nanette returned to the room, and I said I thought she was on her way. I began quoting from Luke chapter 2, the Christmas story. Nanette began to pray. At 12:04 Pig drew her last breath, and then I watched as the pulse in her neck quietly faded to a stop.
What I wanted then was to see what she was seeing! Hear the angels singing, see Jesus in the middle of the light of His Glory, maybe our other family members lined up to welcome her to heaven - who knows what it's really like. On my end, I just watched her breathing slow. And then she just didn't breath anymore. And even though with all of my heart I wanted her to breath again, I knew that it was her time. I told her I loved her and to go. Go and spend the merriest Christmas of her life – in the arms of her savior.
Pig and Russell, Mam-Maw, Rebecca Lynn. We'll see ya at the tree.