Anna died at 5am on Saturday, June 8. I have to remind myself of this fact most days.
I went back and read a few of her posts here with the self-imposed expectation I could try to write this final post with a similar spirit and voice. But then I laughed. I’m not as good of a writer as Anna, nor am I in a place where I can write with the levity (it’s all relative) and perfect wording she had in some of these posts. I miss all of that about her and all of her.
In the last weeks of May, Anna had increased difficulty breathing. While this was initially thought to be due to treatment-related inflammation, her breathing worsened and by the time she was admitted to the hospital, her medical team suspected either pneumonia and/or tumor growth of her lung metastases. When she leaned forward, she could take only shallow breaths and when she leaned back, she’d cough. Her breathing became so labored and her body was working so hard to take breaths; her body would soon be unable to sustain this level of work. She was uncomfortable, exhausted, and needed a break. The decision, with her buy-in, was to be placed on a ventilator, which would breathe for her, give her the reprieve she needed, and buy some time for antibiotics and chemotherapy to hopefully address the possible root causes.
The ventilator took away her voice, but it did not take away her ability to write. She would motion for a pen, and she’d write what she needed, what she was thinking, and everything else, in complete sentences and with appropriate punctuation. Classic Anna. What was practical in the moment is now a cherished, one-sided transcript of her final week. I’m grateful for those writings.
After being on the ventilator for five days, we learned that her condition was not improving. The options were comfort care or longer-term ventilator support to “wait out” the oral chemo, in the chance that it would be effective enough to restore her lung function. Faced with the reality of not returning home, Anna was clear this is not what she wanted: for her, living on machines was not living. She wanted to be home with Sam and me more than anything.
Anna wrote us personal, hand-written notes and was able to say good-bye to her parents, her sister, Sam, and me. She asked me to stay with her that night they took her off the ventilator. She and I had almost 90 minutes of uninterrupted “conversation” before she went to sleep on that Friday night. I held her hand. I didn’t leave her side. I was there for the journey only she could be on and couldn’t have been more present (with the exception of picking up my phone to snap the photo below).
I am sharing all of these details because I want everyone who knows Anna to know that Anna’s death was beautiful. It was sad. It was painful (for us). It was painless (for her). It was her decision. It was an experience we should be comfortable talking about. And I am so grateful that we got to say good-bye. That is a gift and privilege very few of us get to have in our loved ones’ final hours. This can also serve as a reminder to let everyone in your life you love know it. The experience of death is important, and outside of Anna’s birth and her delivering Sam into this world, I can’t think of a more intimate and beautiful thing I could have been there for with her.
I’m understanding that our family’s story is kind of tragic. I look at two empty chairs at the dinner table every night now as Sam and I hold hands to say prayers. Exactly three years ago at this time, Anna was pregnant with what would have been a daughter, Lily, and we were bracing for the roller-coaster that comes with being a family of four. Anna, Sam, and I have had years now to grieve our losses along this journey, some incremental some monumental. We haven’t shied away from many hard conversations and done what we can to help one another with our own grief journeys (I’m realizing I’m still not used to writing some things in past tense). So, in Anna’s final written words, it actually wasn’t surprising when she reminded me that Quincey’s heartworm pills needed to be refilled; that also lets you know how lucid she was. It also wasn’t surprising to me that she and I had little else to say. We’d said it all. We were aligned during and about these final days – even if we didn’t know how or when it would happen.
We didn’t need spoken words. And if you know Anna, she could say it all with her eyes and never needed to over-explain anyway.
I love you, Anna. I’m going to do the best I can to be a good dad for Sam and continue to be the good human you’ve helped me know I can be. I carry your heart with me.
“Be kind. Be generous. And seek fun.” – Anna, June 7, 2019
Anna’s memorial service will be August 10, 2019 at United Church of Chapel Hill at 1 or 2pm. If you need more details or just want to reach out, feel free to call, text, or email me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Tim’s short syllabus for grief, loss, death, and dying (I’m not an expert, but these were my guides along the way):
- Here if You Need Me: A True Story by Kate Braestrup
- The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully by Frank Ostaseski
- The Adversity Within (a now defunct blog) by Tim Lawrence, but his stuff is still easily findable, like this and this
- i carry your heart with me by e.e. cummings
- Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo
- Most things by Cole Imperi, the American Thanatologist (Here or here)