When I visited B. last Sunday night, she was asleep the whole time, though she reached for my hand, or a hand, so we got to hold hands, too. On Monday afternoon, I called her daughter to see about a visit that evening after work, and her daughter said that B. was still sleeping soundly, so I decided to visit the following day instead, and went to bed quite early, about 8:30, as I aspire to do every single night.
At 9:30 p.m. that same evening, I got a call from B.’s daughter saying that the hospital had called her 30 minutes earlier with the news that her mother had died. It was really very kind of her to call me so soon! She could have called days after the fact, and it would have been entirely understandable.
She said I was welcome to go to the hospital to say goodbye to B. Since I’m the hospice volunteer who’s scared of dead bodies, I said I didn’t need to do that, but then after wailing for half an hour in my apartment by myself, I decided it would be a good idea to go be with others feeling something similar. (Except much worse. I’m distraught at losing B. after knowing her for seven months—I can’t imagine what it’s like for her children and grandchildren.)
Part of the reason I fear dead bodies dates back to childhood, with its numberless dead pet rodents. I distinctly recall a particular black mouse, passed from this world, eyes still open. Her name might have been Mary. I recall feeling a horrible challenge in regard to this small body: that I should demonstrate my bravery by touching one of those dull, dead eyes before consigning the two ounces of flesh to the earth. I’m sure I didn’t do it, but I can still remember that panicked now-or-never feeling, plus chagrin and disappointment in myself for being such a scaredy cat. (Why I should have thought I was required to touch a corpse, I do not know.)
A similar feeling arose on our family field trip to the crematory several years ago to make sure it was Grandma Lee and no other entering the industrial oven. I didn’t touch her as she lay in her cardboard box—like a very large cake box—and I felt that exact feeling, a giant knot in my stomach.
I’m sure B. would not mind my mentioning that post-death, her appearance was less welcoming than formerly, but she herself was quite obviously gone, and I did solve the 40-year-old problem on this occasion, so I thank her for that: When invited to touch what remained, I said, “I think this is close enough,” and gave myself permission for that to be so.
I noticed that others also felt that several feet was close enough, while a couple of people were entirely comfortable stroking and petting B.’s body, which brave souls have my admiration. Both of her daughters told me several times how much I had meant to their mother. The feeling was entirely mutual.
When I got home from the hospital, I listened to the seven or eight voice mails from her I currently have on my answering machine. The next power outage will wipe them out, so I took the precaution of transferring them to a cassette tape for posterity. The first one says something like, “I enjoyed your visit very, very much. I think you’re fun! And I think you’re unusual. And I like you.”
She was so enthusiastic about so many things. The last time I heard her voice, the Friday before she died, she said to a visitor, “I don’t know you very well—but I’d like to!”
Thank you so much, B., for your wonderful friendship and your love. How strange it is to have you not here.