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Sharing life's most intimate moments
From VJ I learned how to trust the wisdom of the ages.
VJ poked at her uneaten toast smothered in Maine blueberry jam. She hadn’t yet taken a bite. We sat at the well-used table in Anne’s drafty farmhouse kitchen. Only a faint echo of surf broke through the old windowpanes on what appeared to be a typical gray and snowy January day on the Maine coast.
VJ broke through the silence. “When Anne dies,” she started. Her words hit me like a blast of frigid winter air. For the past few days, we’d been alternating sitting with Anne as she lay dying in the room upstairs. I’d been so focused on listening for each breath, I hadn’t allowed myself to think about what we would do when the last one came.
The other times I sat with dying people—a friend’s mother, my aunt, another friend’s partner—we’d been in a hospital. All I had to do was say goodbye and leave the rest to the nurses. This was different. VJ and I were it. And we knew it wouldn’t be long. My heart started to race. I struggled to take a deep breath. The sound of VJ’s calm voice broke through my growing dread.
“I’d like to spend time caring for her body,” she continued.” You know, washing her, putting lotion on her, dressing her in special clothes, that kind of thing.” Her eyes met mine. “Would you help me?”
I couldn’t imagine it. I hadn’t imagined it.
Anne and I had been through so much—thirteen years together, a painful separation, and finally a deep and lasting reconnection, no longer as lovers but still chosen family. Could I do this? Ancient rituals led by women around the globe flashed through my head. Caring for the dead. This is what women had been doing for centuries. Anne would love this—at least theoretically. She had always been drawn to learning about women’s sacred rites, even if she couldn’t bring herself to practice them.
I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to do this, but I felt Anne deserved this from me. We had survived too much to not see this through.
“Yes,” I said, my eyes wide with anticipation and determination. “I’d would be honored.” Then I quickly added, “I don’t know what happens though. Do you?”
We agreed to consult the hospice nurse, Ginny, the next time she came and take it from there.
As I stood with Anne’s hand in mine, all life gone from her body, Ginny’s descriptions of what to expect flooded my brain. Any remaining walls I had put up to protect myself from the pain collapsed. My legs began to shake. I reached for the table to steady myself.
“Do you want to be alone with her for a minute?” VJ asked, nudging me back into the moment.
“No, no, that’s fine,” I responded, trying to shake off the fear that had come over me. “I’d like us both to stay with her.” I filled my lungs with air from Anne’s last breath, then released it back into the room. “Would you like to start washing her now?” I asked. “Ginny said to do it right away.”
VJ held my gaze, then looked down at Anne and nodded.
I had heard stories about VJ long before I met her. Anne got to know her as her father’s and then her mother’s personal caregiver as they lay dying in this same much-loved house. During that time, Anne and VJ became dear friends who explored the Maine coast and woodlands near and around Penobscot Bay with their two spirited dogs leading the way.
When Anne’s cancer returned, VJ stayed by her side as she had done with Anne’s parents to make sure she had whatever she needed. When Anne had a brain hemorrhage, she called me to come. Although we feared this would be the end, Anne rallied, and together we helped her transition home from the hospital.
And then another miracle happened, Anne recovered enough to plan a final cruise—one of her favorite things to do--to say goodbye to her closest friends. VJ helped to make it the most meaningful experience it could be.
Two weeks after the cruise ended, VJ called me again, and this time I knew it would be the last time. I arrived in Maine to find her sitting by Anne’s bedside. For the next several days, we took turns sitting with Anne, talking with her, and reading to her, as she lay there in a mostly delirious state.
When the time came, we were as ready as we could be, and together we shared one of the most intimate acts any two humans can share, that of preparing a body—the body of someone we both loved—for its final journey.
Through her simple request, VJ taught me to embrace the most sacred moments in life—to move through fear and trust that the wisdom of the ages will guide me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be in this situation again, but, if I am, I will be the one inviting someone else to help.
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