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March 28, 2021

Her Final Breath- 3/28/10

  “This morning I woke with a gnawing feeling in my gut. I wrote to all of you and then I called hospice. Her night nurse, William told me that she was starting to have congestion- congestive heart failure and I knew. I knew why Alan and I were so uneasy. I knew that I had to get there, had to be there, had to be with her. I  broke down in Alan’s arms. I told him, “I’m not ready.. I thought I was, but I’m not.” We both went into panic mode. Alan knew that today was likely the day she would leave us and yet he was on call at the hospital. The patient waiting for him in the operating room scheduled for 8:00 was counting on him. At 6 a.m., he started calling all his partners hoping to find coverage but nobody answered. He left a round of desperate messages and held his breath, hoping the phone would ring. How many times had he stepped up for someone in a crisis?

How was this possible? Sue Sue’s crashing. Alan has to go to the hospital and  I have to take Dylan to the airport. We were going to leave at 7:30,Dylan and I, but I knew I couldn’t be anywhere but with Sue Sue, so in a hysterical state I called my neighbor Gary, at 6 a.m. no less, and he answered immediately. He was well aware of our situation with Sue Sue. They come for Christmas every year and he cared. Gary is the neighbor who changes your mailbox when you’re out of town because it needs to be changed. He and Allison are why we’ll never move. You can’t buy good neighbors and good is an understatement. They are incredible human beings. I was sobbing and in between heaves, I  told Gary that I needed a huge favor. Sue Sue was dying right now and I  had to be with her. Would he drive Dylan to the Fort Lauderdale airport for me in an hour? It was about 45 minutes each way. Before I could even finish asking, he said, “Have Dylan ready at 7:15!” Instant relief poured over me. I was euphoric and relieved and despondent. I threw some clothes into a bag and dashed out the door with instructions to my sixteen year old to finish breakfast, clean up, be ready, oh and have a good vacation. Poor guy. He had said his goodbyes to Sue Sue and as a family we decided, that going away would be best for everyone.

When I walked into Sue Sue’s room, everything was different. Her breathing was agonizing. Labored doesn’t begin to cover it. Every breath she took made my insides ache. I announced myself, just like they said in the book I read on dying. I assumed the position that I have unfortunately become so accustomed to- me sitting on her bed with both hands resting on her arms or her legs. I told her I knew she could hear me and that we were going to do this together, as we had every other step of this hellish journey.   For about an hour Sue Sue continued to gasp for air- every breath shook her body with struggle. Her nurse told me it was much harder for me than it was for Sue. She put  lavender oil on her pillow, she rubbed her brow and she touched her forehead. Then in a whisper she told Sue Sue to go somewhere far, far away. We decided she would take that trip to Israel that she and Harold never got to take.

As soon as I  arrived that morning, I asked the nurse if a rabbi could bless Susan. He was off site, so a priest came in and blessed her. I believe his name was Rocco.  God is God and God is good. In my book that’s all that matters. I wanted her to have a blessing and a blessing she would have. The nurses came in and out of her room, giving her more Dilaudid and Ativan as it was just too much work for her body to keep breathing that way. All of a sudden her breathing became quieter. A nurses aide came in the room and took her blood pressure. She had no blood pressure. That is when Elena told me, “She has no blood pressure. You’d better make your phone calls”.  Her words scared me but the look on her face told me she knew this was it. She said, “This is going to be soon!”

I  made my phone calls when I arrived. Alan and I decided I should get there, assess the situation, and then start calling whoever needed to know whatever I  knew. Poor Alan, he was stuck at the hospital. Antonio was on his way to relieve him but it wouldn’t be in time. I called her boyfriend Harold first thing and told him that if he wanted to say goodbye to Sue Sue, now was the time. He must have sensed what was going on. He was one step ahead of me and already on his way. I called Jeff , Alan’s brother, who was trying to get a ride up.

Within minutes, her breathing was so slow it was hardly noticeable. She’d take a really deep, heavy breath in, then there’d be a pause…we’d hold our breath (Harold and I), and then she’d breathe out again. Then she took another breath and it happened… the LOUDEST silence I’ve ever heard. It was deafening. I stared at her chest in disbelief. It wasn’t moving. I stared at Elena with huge tears welled up in my eyes. This went on for just a second or two. Elena put her stethoscope on Sue Sue’s chest. She said she’s not breathing but her heart is still beating. 2 seconds later, Harold and I looked at Elena. “She’s gone.”

She was just breathing and then, no breathing. I sobbed like a child in Harold’s arms. My whole body shook. We wanted this for her, freedom from the prison she was living in. A death sentence that lasted for ten years. One moment she was here, and then she was gone.  How could there be no more Sue Sue? It was a concept I just couldn’t wrap my arms around. Even in her sickest, weakest moments, she was still a part of our family. She was here, and then, she was not. I sat with her for a moment and I told her, “You did it Sue Sue. It’s over.” This is what she wanted more than anything; to be liberated from her body and all the restrictions on her that came with that wretched cancer. For weeks now, we’d lie in her bed and she’d look over at me and ask, “Why can’t I just die?”

Her hard work was done, and ours was just beginning. The thing I wanted more than anything for her, was the thing I wanted less than anything for me. But this is what it means to love someone with all your heart.  I took it all in for a moment and knew for sure that the very white, frail body sitting next to me was definitely not our Sue Sue. I imagined her soaring with the angels, sleeping in a field of daffodils, and I started making  phone calls.

One day in the hospital, weeks ago, Sue Sue and I went through her address book and she told me who to call, and she specifically told me who not to call. I called them all…Aunt Roni, Reny, Alan, Jeffrey, Dylan, and all I could say  was “She’s gone.” Then I called Gary and between sobs and gasps I thanked him for being there for us, no questions asked. If he had not, Sue Sue would likely have passed alone.

I arrived at 7 and I called Harold. If I had arrived at 9 or 9:30 as I always did, she would have already been gone. None of the wheels would have been in motion to have Alan or Jeff there, albeit after the fact. Harold got himself there. If I hadn’t woken up with that feeling and made that phone call to William in the dark of morning, I couldn’t have realized how dire things were.

You never dared to call Sue sue before 10:00 a.m. She was always a sleeper. My 7 a.m. arrival was strictly a gut reaction to what I sensed was pending doom. I will never in my life forget what Gary did for me that morning. I know that being with her as she slipped through my fingers was one of the most honorable and most agonizing things I’ll ever have the privilege of doing. I’d like to think that it eased Sue Sue’s struggle to have someone helping her leave this world. It wasn’t a gentle process.  It breaks my heart to think of anyone going through it alone.

A flurry of texts and messages have wrapped around our family today and yet still we feel numb. I am weary from the last month of emergency rooms, hospital beds, hospice visits and trips up Sue Sue’s stairs. I am tired from 10 years of Sue Sue’s cancers and all that came in that package. But more than anything, I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to have had Sue Sue for my other mother, the grandmother of my children and the mother of the man I love most of all. Rest Sue Sue, there is nothing more to do.”

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