The best laid plans… I came back from San Diego with the idea of aggressively attacking the comic world again. I was going to fire up my blogs full-speed, email every editor I knew and every one I didn’t. I was going to put all my energies into making a big push. I was going to take the first week after San Diego off, knowing that everyone I wanted to contact was as well, and start the Monday after…
Little did I know that all of this would quickly take a back seat to what was really important.
My wife, Debbie, and I had been dating on and off for 16 years when her mother asked her to move back home. Sheila’s health was starting to fail and she could no longer do some of the simple things in life such as drive. Debbie and I discussed it and decided we would both move in, stopping only to get married, and then we could both be there for her mother. In April of 2004, after being married one month, we sold my condo and moved into her mother’s house. For two years, things were simple and quiet. I got the loft as an office and spent most of my time there. Sheila had her room that she stayed in and really we didn’t talk that much.
Two years passed, and on a normal day in March of 2006, I came home from work to find that Sheila was having difficulties breathing and wanted to go to the hospital. It didn’t seem like that big of deal… she didn’t want an ambulance or anything, just a ride down there. Sheila was suffering from COPD or early stage lung disease. She was also prone to drinking and smoking. On the way to the hospital, Sheila passed out. Upon her arrival at the emergency room, she was placed on a ventilator to get her breathing again. She had a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) on file, but they played it safe first. She was on the ventilator for a solid week. Each time the tried to take her off of it, she would immediately start to crash and they put her back on. After a week, the doctor told us that he was going to take her off the machine one last time, give her a morphine drip and let her pass. Debbie and I said our good byes that night and headed home.
At 6:45 the next morning, the phone rang. A nurse asking for my wife. It turned out that Sheila was awake, responsive and wanting to go home.
Two days later, Sheila was home and now under hospice care. We were told that she probably wouldn’t be around very long, and that we just needed to make her comfortable. She was no longer drinking or smoking. She was on an oxygen line at all times and we thought we were waiting for the inevitable. The only thing was, Sheila didn’t see it as the inevitable. She rallied in such a way that surprised every nurse and doctor involved. Her mind became sharp again; her sense of humor quickened and her quality of life thrived. She went back to some of her favorite things: knitting, crossword puzzles and reading. She did so much knitting that she actually started selling hand-made scarves to the nurses and volunteers from hospice and even started listing them on-line. She became such an inspiration that the hospice nationwide newsletter came out to do an article on her.
In that time something else happened; I got to know Sheila. Not as my wife’s mother. Not as a roommate that I passed in the hall. But as a person with a wicked sense of humor, strong political beliefs and a love for life. I had started working from home full-time so I got to see a lot of her. We talked about anything and everything. Often times her and I would gang up on Debbie, poking fun at my wife and just having a good laugh. And Sheila was supportive of my decision to write full-time. I’m not sure many people would be happy that their son-in-law would quit their good paying jobs to try to make it writing comics… but she looked at it like it made perfect sense and I would be a fool not to.
The funny thing is… all those months did one thing we hadn’t counted on; it made us forget that Sheila was dying. The Monday that I had intended to focus on writing became the day we started coordinating round the clock care for Sheila. She could no longer make it down the hallway for her food. She was out of breathing going across the hall to the bathroom. She started losing her words… not being able to remember what the remote control was called. But through all of it she insisted that she was fine, that she didn’t need nurses or us to go out of our way for her. She quickly got to where she couldn’t do her own medications, or even get out of bed. With Debbie working, it fell to me to cover any open shifts, any time a nurse could not be there. I learned how to measure out doses and about a dozen other things I never thought I would have to do.
Over a three-week period, Debbie and I watched as Sheila slowly slipped away. All we could do was to make her comfortable. The nurses were amazing, but there was still so much we had to do that we both became physically and emotionally exhausted. Then, on Tuesday the 21st, I got up at 5:30 AM to let the nice nurse go home and wait for the next one at 8 AM. Sheila was no longer responsive to voice or anything else, she just was continuing to exist. I did all her meds that morning and she still seemed agitated. At 8:15 I realized there was no nurse, so I called the hospice. They were short staffed, but I told them that I couldn’t seem to get her to settle in peacefully. They promised to get me someone. At 9:30 I woke Debbie just to go over all the things I had done to make sure I didn’t miss anything. There was nothing. At 10 AM one of the hospice nurses arrived and checked everything over. We tried to go about our day. Deb had been home from work the last few days, we all sensed the end was coming, but she had decided that day she was going to go back in to the office. After a few hours, we knew she better stay home again.
At just before 2 PM, Sheila took one last deep breath and passed on.
Eighteen months. Its not often you get a second chance with someone you love. My wife got eighteen extra months with her mother after having to say good-bye to her once before. I got eighteen months to know a remarkable woman. We got to say the things we wanted to say. To let her know that she was loved and that we were blessed for having time with her. But even when you know its coming… it still hits hard.
I’m writing this at 5 AM, less than 48 hours later. I’m writing it because I need to. Because this is how I grieve. Because in the middle of the night, the glow from the computer screen in a dark room doesn’t show the tears streaming down your face. Yesterday and tomorrow… I need to be there for Debbie. To help her through this and to be strong for her. But in the quiet hours of the morning, Sheila’s favorite time of day, I can use my word to help me deal with the pain. And to try to explain to our youngest cat why the lady he used to play with all the time is no longer there.
Good-bye Sheila. We love you.