Joan died. She died. She's gone. A piece of my family and my heart is gone.
It was on July 9th, 2012 at 12:24a.m. Technically, she was gone at 2a.m. the previous morning. A stroke in essence took one of the most important people from me without a word.
I was awoken that Sunday around 5:45a.m. by my Dad who was calling from the hospital. I was sure he was going to tell me Jay, the man he and Joan cared for with terminal cancer, had passed. I even asked: "Dad, is it Jay." He was silent and then in almost a whisper, he said, "It's Joan. She had a stroke." What? No. Not a chance. He must mean Jay. "What? You mean Jay right?" "No sweetie." And the question I knew the answer to flew from my lips before I could stop myself... knowing the answer would rip me apart. "Is she going to be okay?"
"No. They said there is nothing that they can do. She's on a respirator now... but there is no brain activity. She's breathing, but she's gone." We started sobbing before he could say another word.
I immediately tried to console Dad between sobs. "It's going to be okay. I'm coming home right now. It'll be okay. Hold on." We hung up and pain shot through me as I sat up in bed staring out the window. I'd never hear her voice again, but I had to say goodbye. Waking my best friend, we numbly packed bags and loaded into my Jeep, for the five hour trek home. Kristen had to drive. I could barely move, much less focus. During the drive we told stories about Joanie, and things that she'd always say. We talked about the weather and school. Anything to keep from crying.
When we finally made it to the Shore, my sister, aunt and uncle and dad were in the ICU with Joan. She looked so peaceful. Just sleeping. The respirator unnaturally raising and lowering her chest to breathe was a harsh reminder that she wasn't just sleeping. I sat with her for hours just holding her hand and rubbing my thumb across a beauty mark on her knuckle. Visiting hours ended and we gathering what strength we had to go home. Tomorrow we'd make the decision to take her off life support. However, I knew it would be the last time I'd see her. Joan had a way of taking care of things in her own way. I leaned in and kissed her cheek, and stroked her hair, whispering in her ear "I love you sweetie. I love you. I already miss you."
Sleeping was impossible, so I laid on the couch in the living room, talking to Kris. Around 12:30 the phone rang. A death bell tolling through the quiet house. They didn't have to say it. I knew she was gone. I could feel that piece of my heart being torn from me. I tip-toed down the hall to dad's room where he sat up in bed on the phone with the hospital. She passed quietly with the ICU nurse in the room. She wasn't alone at least. I held dad's hand and we cried. Nothing would be the same from that moment forward. We wouldn't be the same.
The next month was a wicked blur for me. I was able to stay with dad and help with the Celebration of Life we held instead of a funeral. Hundreds of people showed up. I waded through financial documents and living wills. I scoured my computer for photos of Joanie. We had to figure out how she paid her bills and organized the household. It became clear that she was juggling so much with so little complaint. Could this have contributed to her untimely death?
She died four days before her retirement and 16 days before her wedding to my father. Though I'd considered her a stepmom for years, it would have been official. Would have been. So many of those pass through my mind now. What would have or could have been.
Today I thought again of what dad told me of her last lucid moments. She got up from bed that night to get water from the bathroom. Dad woke up to a loud crash and ran into the room. Joan was hunched over the sink and complained of a headache. She slid down to the floor and laid on the cool tiles. Dad called 911 and crawled on the floor next to her. He breathing was labored, but she seemed calm. Neither of them realizing what was happening. She began to sway in and out of consciousness. Dad leaned in and held her hand. "I love you sweetie." She looked up at him and said "Well I love you too," almost as if saying 'well of course.' She closed her eyes and seemed to drift off to sleep. Dad called 911 again begging for an ambulance that would come only 40 minutes later. He whispered the Lord's Prayer and cried.
She wasn't alone. She was with the person she loved most. Her last words were beautiful and true. A perfectly imperfect death. Quiet, simple, beautiful. But the timing was awful. She was only 63 years old.
So she grabbed me a water bottle and put my name on it, and then wrapped me up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for the drive. After loading up the car I turned and gave her a big hug and kiss. The next thing we said still sits with me... the irony poking me like a dagger. Joan grabbed my hand through the car window and said "Please be safe going back. I can't have anything bad happen to you. I don't know what I'd do with myself." I responded playfully with: "Me?! You're the one always rushing around. You be careful! I don't know what I'd do without you or Dad. I'll call when I get home. Love you." I backed out the driveway and waved to her. She looked lovely with her silver hair messily tied up in a bun, and her bare feet showing under her pajama bottoms. She was smiling and then turned to go back into the house. I turned and drove away having no idea that within a week I'd be holding her lifeless hand at the hospital. Praying for a miracle that couldn't come.
2012 did not improve for my family. Financial burden fell hard on us as we tried to settle accounts and pay final expenses. Jay took a steep turn for the worse and required Hospice care. He passed in November, just days after his 65th birthday. I promise to tell my story for him as well. Dad is a broken man. I want so much to make his pain go away. I hate imagining him sitting alone at the kitchen counter with a single dinner plate. No one to talk to. No one to share his day with. It's different when you choose to be alone. It doesn't hurt like it does when your life has been torn away from you without warning or reason.
I miss her. Every day. That won't end. I wonder when this searing pain will. I wonder when I won't be angry. When I won't question why this happened and what I did wrong. When will the darkness lift from my heart? I hope that this will serve some cathartic purpose for me. I hope 2013 will allow me to write again. To begin to push myself forward. I hope.
Joan Kenney Brown
April 7, 1949 - July 9, 2012