Friday, 2 March 2018

Part 2: walking him home: finding sanctuary in the storm

Max in New Zealand: May 2015
Part 2.

What I haven't mentioned yet is that this Max I describe? He was that Max to so many because that was the way he walked in the world-- generous beyond measure, intuitively knowing when he was needed, poetic in his supportive conversations, indescribable in his warmth and love and helpfulness really.  

All that knew him were gutted about this journey he was taking;our immediate family was no exception.

After three weeks I returned home only to go back in less than a month, after Max had awakened one day unable to move one side of his body and struggling to communicate verbally. 

By the time I arrived he was in a hospital bed in the middle of the sitting room. I arrived at midnight. His wife was sleeping in the room with him and I said I'd take the couch in the adjacent room to support them both. 

He roused at about 2 am and I asked his wife if it was cool for me to talk to him. He knew me. He lit up and giggled. He tried to talk but his words weren't coming right or orderly but, at times, I knew what he wanted to say and he could acknowledge if I was right.  

His respirations were only a few per minute. I wasn't sure how much longer he had based on that. I took his pulse on his weak arm. He grabbed my wrist with his strong arm and looked me directly in the eye with a smirk and ordered me, "Relax." 

That would be the last clear word uttered and the final directive from my precious big brother.

We embraced each other tightly. I whispered– Max, you've done such an amazing job. You've gifted us with so much. We understand if you need to go

We sobbed, holding each other like forever was right there in our grasp. He nodded and then I could tell he was trying to say his kids' names. I said, you are hanging on for (your kids) and he nodded emphatically yes

I told him what a great dad he was and how strong they were and how they would miss him greatly but they would always have his love and I promised that we'd all support his family in any way we could. 

I wanted him to relax in the understanding that there would be so many people at the ready to help his family in the way he had helped theirs. 

He seemed to relax a bit. And over and over again, I thanked him and told him what an amazing force he'd been in my life. 

And for that piece of time, in the middle of the night, alone, in the in-between, it felt as if our divine connection was consecrated; the knowing without words held us, like the identical twins who feel each other deeply. 

Once again I said, "Let's promise that whoever goes first will communicate with the other and give each other signs." This time he couldn't give his usual response of a giggle and "of course!" 

This time we knew unequivocally who the odds were saying would go first and he nodded in affirmation.

My daughter had asked me while on her way to meet us for this last gathering, what do I say to him? 

My suggestion was to say everything to him that you might wish you hadn't said if he was gone. Thank him, love him. 

To watch my older kids sit at his side and detail what he had done for them and meant to them in their lives was a miracle unfolding. Just to feel and share the love was an honour. 

When my daughter first came to him he met her with a warm, knowing embrace that had everyone in the room sobbing along with the two of them. 

The next week didn't go slow enough, yet there was also a wanting to release him from the constrictions his earthly body was imposing on him. 

His wife and I were getting up throughout the nights with him. He required full on nursing and planning for repositioning and such and it was, again, a gift to see that nursing training and experience is a bit like riding a bicycle and I was so happy that I could help. 

Someone was at his side at all times. 

This man experienced a gathering of love and a vigil sitting that was heart-wrenching and beautiful to behold.  

A mere six days after I landed, dear Max bid us farewell at daybreak with a full moon still in the sky, on Friday the 13th of January, with loved ones surrounding him. 

It was clear our relationship had forever changed, but I knew it would never end.

Having lived in New Zealand and aware of the Maori practice of the three day tangi and just recently having watched a lovely movie, Zen & the Art of Dying, and knowing that, even in the US, it was becoming more acceptable to take care of loved ones' bodies at home (as my mother had always told us was the way when she was a child) I tiptoed in that direction after he died. 

I'd already planted the seed with his wife that we wouldn't have to call to have his body taken away immediately and that time can be some of the most precious.

Having experienced it many times with nursing, I felt very comfortable suggesting that we tend to his body and dress him. 

His wife and kids went upstairs and picked out his classic uniform of jeans and his trademark denim shirt; that was Max. 

We gently bathed him with frankincense and lavender in warm water. My older brother said at first he was shocked at the concept but ended up feeling that this care-taking was a deeply moving and loving time, especially when his sweet wife insisted on being part of the process. 

With every step we took, and the natural feeling of it all, it became clear that we would love to keep him at home with us longer.

I called a funeral home that the hospice social worker had suggested might be flexible and was blessed by a very warm reception, we haven't done this before but we know this trend is happening and we support you 100%. 

The funeral director went on to give me tips on how to keep his body as long as possible: cool room, strategically placed ice. (you can keep him until the funeral if you like-- just give us an hour notice and we can get him any time of the day or night, it's your call). It was extremely helpful to not feel pressured by the funeral industry.

What ensued was the most beautiful three days of heart-wrenching, yet full of laughter and loving, time that our family had ever experienced together. 

Max was in the sitting room and french doors separated it from the family room and a door could be closed from the entry hallway of the house. One of us stayed with him at all times. 

We had peppermint oil infusing-- I felt it important to have a beautiful cleansing smell there for those that might have misgivings about a body remaining home for an extended period. 

We kissed Max and held his hand. Notes were written and left in his pockets. He was adored and loved. 

His wife and my nieces swear they saw a smile on his face. 

I was so happy to know in my heart that this was exactly what he would have wanted but since the terrain wasn't common, even lucid, he may not have been able to ask for it. 

The first evening it was clear that we didn't want bright lights on and since candles had yet to be unpacked from their move, we needed to get some. 

My daughter and I headed out on the snow-packed roads to Target. Mind you, I had yet to be out of the house, let alone drive on the right side of the road in snow again; on this trip and we were a bit like Lucy and Ethel out on a mission. 

My daughter wanted to hear exactly what had transpired in the last 24 hours leading to Max's death and in actuality it was probably very therapeutic for me to have the chance to talk that out. 

We walk into the store and we search and search and for the life of us cannot find a candle or an employee. Again, think Lucy and Ethel. 

I stop and look up and say, "Ok Max, I'm sure this is the first of many requests but could you please help us find the candles?" 

We both nervously chuckle over my audaciousness. 

My eyes move down from the ceiling and directly ahead of us, about four aisles away, is a candle display on the end of an aisle. 

We get there and every candle is in a variety of very cool holders that have "2ECOND LIFE" printed largely on it. 
Thank you Max.
We almost drop to our knees. And that is the first experience in a list "yay long" (as my mother would say) of "hellos" that I have been keeping since Max's crossing over.
Back in the room there is so much pain and so much beauty over the next few days, it is difficult to describe. 

Some people can't be in the room with him much at all. Some people find it hard to be away from him. 

Aromas of food waft in from those busy in the kitchen. Laughter dances from the mostly younger in the group going through photos for photo boards. 

The minister comes and we discuss the funeral service. My oldest brother and sister-in-law go off to the funeral home to choose a casket. 

Max's wife frequently checks in with their younger kids about if they are ready for dad to go yet and the answer is always no. I begin to wonder if we will ever want him to leave. Maybe we can't part with this earthly image of him.

Then miraculously, on the third day, his wife mentions to me and then the kids-- I think it's time. We had agreed we'd have him depart in the dark for a bit of sanctity. Everyone agrees, yes, it can happen now.  

We gather together around him until they arrive. We sing by candle light. We love him communally in his family home for the last time. We cry. We laugh. We sing "You are my Sunshine" for his mama. 

Eventually they come for Max's body. 

Everything that I thought would be horribly traumatic is not. Them placing him on their stretcher. Taking him through all the people in the living room and kitchen area. 

I wait for the wails, for the holding on to the stretcher. It doesn't happen. 

My brother, Max's wife and I follow the stretcher outside. My oldest brother, nine years Max's senior,and as my mom would describe he helped raise him, he potty trained him, he follows the van down the road a bit. 

I feel his yearning. His disbelief. His feeling that a part of him has just been taken and there is the searing knowledge that we will always have this missing piece. 

The expanse of that love is beautiful. The tragedy of the losing hurts so very much.

And then we go back in and people are actually talking normally and there is laughter. 

His wife goes and gets Max's favourite whiskey she'd had to hide because with his memory issues she was concerned that he might not remember if he drank. She poured a toast, for the first time, for their almost 21 year old son. A drink for Max. And the night went on peacefully which was a great testimony to the timing of it all. 

As I told my sister-in-law during the vigil, "This right here? This is equal to six months of intensive therapy. This is covering ground you could never cover in an office with a stranger."

We have a beautiful service for Max. A bald eagle gives his wife and my son and myself a nod as we drive to the celebration of life-- even circling back for a second pass. 

We tell the minister about the eagle upon our arrival. 

The reverend smiles, "Sorry, that was a hello from Max. We don't see bald eagles around here." 

That was the beginning of my sister-in-law and others seeing more bald eagles and being guided by hawks when lost and I, too, saw more bald eagles on my next trip to North America having never seen them previously.

There had been the mantra of "thank you Max" when he was rehabbing and would follow instructions. Now we'd find cause to recite "thank you Max" for his love and guidance from the beyond.


                Anna Fermin singing "Forever Young"

Click HERE for part 3, the final entry of this series. 

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