There’s no way I could’ve known eleven hours beforehand it would be the last time I’d see her alive.
I normally didn’t visit her on Tuesdays, but my intuition told me to go earlier in the week, not to do her hair, but just to talk.
We had a date every Friday. I’d wash, dry, curl and set her hair. She had grown too frail to make the weekly trips to her “Steel Magnolias,” salon, where she and the other ladies would swap talk while getting beautified. She always looked forward to her visits, to Fridays.
Given that I had gone to cosmetology school as a young adult, and was licensed to practice for many years, I offered to doll her up in her own home every Friday. We both came to look forward to those days.
I’d listen to her talk about her other two sisters, their health problems, the pills they had to take and what ailments they had, as she sipped little bits of air in between her words, like a fish moving its mouth upon catching.
She was attached to an oxygen tube that was long enough to stretch across the top floor of her house.
This is where she ate, slept, read Reader’s Digest, and also where she had her hair done on Fridays.
Her bedroom was moved into the living room where she had more room for her oxygen tank and for the portable potty we set up next to her bed.
I carved out Fridays for her.
I washed her hair, before setting it, then drying and backcombing it into a style that was worth a week of wearing, a short bouffant she had taken to wearing when she was diagnosed as being terminally ill with congestive heart failure.
When she grew too weak or when we were afraid of her catching a cold, I dry shampooed her hair.
I’d sprinkle the foamy powder into her roots, then dry it with a towel, and it never seemed clean, but she always felt better, and that’s all that matters.
She wore a shower cap to bed every night, to protect the style I’d given her, leaving her with less picking to do in the morning. She was a true Leo, very conscious of her mane.
On our last visit she spoke of a second wind she was experiencing.
“If I keep feeling this good, I’ll get back to driving in no time and be able to go see Millie again.”
I smiled and nodded, knowing she was terminal, and that she’d never see the road again, or her best friend.
Millie lived two hours away, through San Diego traffic, making it more like three, and she couldn’t drive anymore either, because she was partially blind from the shingles that had damaged her vision. Millie too, was growing more frail.
The morning after our last visit, there was a call that she had passed in the night.
I left for her home in my pajamas. When I saw her, she was on the floor, where she had fallen out of bed, caught by the portable toilet near it. She had on her nightcap, protecting the hair underneath I would never fix again.
In one hand, her fist was clenching a paper bag that she would often use when she felt she was hyperventilating, and in the other hand was the cap to the pill bottle that hung from her necklace, the heart medicine she would take if she felt she was having an attack or chest pains.
When we picked her up to place her on the bed, her eyes were open with no green left in them, eyes I had come to know in life and now in death.
And only hours before, she spoke of her second wind, of wanting to drive, but then I bore witness to her stiffened furrowed brow, mouth frozen open, wide eyes with their fixed pained expression, as if she’d seen a ghost.
She died in the summer.
The ants were prolific. They crawled out of her mouth when we picked her stiffened body from the floor before placing her back on the bed.
I’ve never held a rigor mortis ridden body of someone I loved, till then. The frozen position in which we found her, arms and legs bent, catching her fall, while hovering over the toilet, was not something we had planned for her.
The funeral parlor would have to break her bones in order to fit her body into the golden colored casket she had chosen months prior to her death.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying speaks of our need to meditate upon death.
It speaks of our running away from it, the natural tendency to want to live, with our focus always on the living. Sometimes I wish I had known about meditating on dying back then, so that I might’ve been able to share this with her on our many Fridays.
We always focused on living.
The last image of her face showed the pain and suffering that was there; her fear was palpable. She had “unfinished business,” and I didn’t help her accept the dying aspect of it, because I too didn’t want to let her go.
I wish I could’ve said to her,
“I love you, you are dying, and that is a natural part of life, and I am honored in being here with you.”
But instead I allowed her to think she was going to drive her car again to her best friends house, like old times, and maybe my own honesty about where she was in her sickness could’ve aided her with the ability to move towards a more peaceful death.
I’ll never know, but as said in the Upanishads, “Death is our greatest teacher.”
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Ed: Catherine Monkman