Here in California, and at USC specifically, we recently practiced for “The Great ShakeOut,” a state-wide Earthquake Preparedness Drill. Under the guidance and leadership of the university’s Fire, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, we performed the drill, each school setting up it’s Emergency Response Team and executing well-defined plans.
Thursday, October 17 2019 began with a triage drill at the Health Center. My overacting ended me up in a neck brace, but I was next to a guy who had “lost his hand”. We were sitting waiting for the “ambulance to pick us up to take us for further care,” he holding his hand in a bag, me wearing my brace. (Though his right arm had been treated, he carried a left hand in his left hand, which made us laugh for a minute. I had to be discharged early from the drill so I could join my team to set up our Departmental Operations Center to be ready for the 10:17 Earthquake. While the idea of a scheduled earthquake is absurd, the scheduling of practice for the inevitable earthquake is anything but. It offers us a way to get it into our bodies, so that when the real one happens, we are ready.
At 10:17, we dropped, covered and held under the flimsy table which was our Departmental Operations Center, where you can see me ready to enter the data collected from our Emergency Response Teams and our Building Emergency Response Teams on our Status board. We use WhatsApp for that communication.
Also on my WhatsApp chat list is the chat group composed of just myself and my two dear college friends, Susan and Bob. That Emergency Response Team is entitled “Loving Jimmie and Els” and was started by Susan about a year ago when my husband had a fall that ultimately quickly ended his life.
We started it in the days after we’d returned home for hospice, a brief three-day period that was insular and emotional, of course, as brief hospices are, and over those days, my friends sent me so much love via this emergency friendship group. Unlike messenger, WhatsApp allowed me this morning to roll back to the beginning of the chat quickly, and to see the real-in time responses to what we were going through right at the end of Jimmie’s life, including a photo of Jimmie in the hospice bed which I’d impulsively deleted from my photos because it wasn’t how I wanted to remember him.
Over the past year, Bob and Susan have supported me on every front, nearly every day via this Emergency Response Team message platform. My earthquake was personal, one that we’d prepared for through many many iterations of hospital care over the years. But critical to the success of surviving the actual incident was having people to share it with immediately and in the aftermath. Looking back on our messages, we shared pictures and memories and plans for future travels together and past travels. At one point, I referred to the chat as a “life feed for me.” We arranged Skype chats to check in and see how each other were doing. Like typical digital tourists, we spent a good five minutes at the beginning of each of our chats figuring out the technology. Honestly, it was ridiculous. But hey, that’s why we practice. To get it right when we need it.
On the other coast, Bob and his son just concluded a similarly quick hospice for his partner and his son’s father. We used the same Loving Jimmie and Els chat over the past ten months as he tended to his loving partner, Mitchell. In honor of Mitchell we need to change the name of our group to Loving Bob and Mitchell. Otherwise it’s hard to be helpful all the way from Los Angeles. I’ve been thinking about him and their son Nate, and also reflecting back on our own hospice with Jimmie as we approach the year mark.
The waiting is the easy part. That’s not to say it’s emotionally easy. Of course it’s not. But while you are in the cocoon with your loved one, you have supportive nursing staffing (if you’re privileged to have health care and resources) and most likely you have family visiting to pay their respects and to say goodbye. You have a solemn intimacy couched in the shared love of your partner/parent/child. I remember on Jimmie’s last day, one of Chris’ best childhood friends, now a cop, dropped by to pay his respects. The two of them laughed at the foot of Jimmie’s bed about all the trouble they’d gotten into when they were younger, and under his watch. Having him visit normalized the process of dying.
Those visits are so critical to the family as they grapple with their emotions. Tugged by the undertow of their loved one’s leaving, it is easy and normal to want to follow them into the afterlife. The visits by friends and family remind you that it isn’t time for you to die with your loved one even though you feel like you want to. There is more life to live and loving family and friends to support you on your first unsteady steps away from the tumultuous surf.
The end of life scene is different from other social settings where people come to visit. It’s purer, somehow. No one expects you to serve up food for them. The visitors do that for you. They are there because they want to be there. Why? To let the person who’s dying know that they love them, and care enough to come and sit facing their friend’s death, but also their own mortality. Because you can’t sit with someone who’s dying without thinking about your own exodus and the remaining purpose of your life were you to be in their position.
Sitting with your loving and dying friends where you all know that time is running out, frames everything in this context. I’m a pretty touchy feely person, but even with repeated experiences, I find my words choked and unavailable. How do you summarize a twenty-five year relationship in a fifteen to twenty-minute visit? This is part of the earthquake drill I still need to rehearse in order to be ready.
What happens immediately after is a frenzy of arrangements, people coming in to what had been a few minutes or hours ago the hallowed ground of your loved one’s departure. Now, your home is the workspace for mortuary workers, hospice care personnel clearing out their equipment. Then there is the silence. The part where no amount of sobbing or screaming or pounding your fist into pillows or walls can bring your loved one back. After you’ve tired yourself out with expressions of anguish, there follows a cavernous silence, an emptiness of loss that feels insurmountable. Simply, what was is no more. The love you had for them is still there, but it echoes back at you in terrifying starkness. Thirty plus years of intimacy and friendship and love gone in an instant. When it happened to us, Chris and I had to get out of the house. We went for a bike ride, of all things, grabbing metro bikes and riding from our condo to Little Tokyo, where we ate sushi, then walked miles back to the empty apartment. And the feelings were epic – guilt (did I do enough? Why didn’t I spend more time at the end at home?), fear (how will I survive without him?) rage (against the disease, the loneliness which you already are beginning to feel, the pain), and eventually, exhaustion, as all the days or months or years of staying vigilant collapse onto you like weighted plates, threatening to crush you. And frankly, you sort of wish they would. Then you wouldn’t have to deal with all of the niggling details of death – the acquisition of dozens of death certificates, of stationery to respond to people who will write in sympathy, the faces of the people who come to see you expressing their love and sorrow for your loss. And may continue to do so far after you need or want them too. Bob expressed it well in one of the messages – Bouts of sobbing – which Siri had helpfully translated as Boys off sobbing. Equally appropriate.
This year, on the anniversary of our return home from the hospital to hospice, I have two tickets to see David Sedaris at UC Irvine. I can’t imagine a more comforting place to spend the evening. I’d booked the tickets a year ago intending to go with my dear friend. During my recent visit, we talked about the fact that she wouldn’t be going with me. It was a bittersweet moment to acknowledge the rapid change in our fortunes.
Not to sound like a modern Cassandra, but like the catastrophic earthquake in Southern California, loss is coming to all of us. How we prepare ourselves to weather those losses is a personal choice. I’ve preferred to suit up and practice going through the motions of it with others. My recommendation to you is that you create your Emergency Response Team now, utilize the tools of communication we are so lucky to have to do it.
Els — this is so profoundly beautiful, sensitive, and vulnerable. I can’t tell you how much I admire you and your ability to express such difficult material and to synthesize it with the Shakeout. If you weren’t such a fabulous stage manager and head of production, i’d say you were in the wrong field and should be making your living by your pen. Sort of like David Sedaris…
Thanks, Melinda, for your kind words. I so appreciate you as a colleague and friend.