The same maddening, fingernail-on-the-blackboard tone over and over again.
The Bedside Monitor began to sound the final notes of its grotesque, one-note symphony and my eyes shuddered themselves closed as I saw the bottom line go flat.
Barbara and I left home the afternoon before in an effort to arrive at the Nassau County Medical Center while her mom was still alive. It was especially important to her since circumstances had prevented her from being there for her father’s passing and the possibility she might miss her beloved Mother’s departure was crushing her. Consequently, the drive provided its own adventure but we stood by the side of her bed with the rest of Mom’s children and family. After almost three years of diminishing health she’d been brought to the hospital 3 days earlier with “internal bleeding of an unknown origin.” Her blood pressure plummeted to 45 over 20. “At 90 years of age,” one family member said, “stuff just shuts down.”
Remaining as physically close to her as we could, clutching for inches, 16 eyes darted between the slowly changing pattern of the red, cardio lines – lengthening, disappearing -and the mother laying in a morphine-induced peace. Line by line, the monitor in the drape-enclosed I.C.U. cubicle spelled out horror to the living testimonies of her life, lovingly gathered about. Verifying our fears, the attending nurse’s words fell hollow, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
The word “grief” is derived from the French word “grève,” meaning a heavy burden. As that peculiar weight came crushing down, tears mingled cheek to cheek as family members embraced in an unconscious effort to borrow strength, to keep from collapsing.
The next 48 hours were, mercifully, filled with the business of necessities – florists, Funeral Home Directors and the long-dreaded phone call to friends of the family, telling the same tear-laden tale over and over again. The gathering in the Funeral Home took place in the same room where Marian’s husband, Arthur, had been celebrated home 20 years earlier. Living out her days in the home he helped build, forever ago it now seems, she now lay, beautiful, in the very spot he once occupied. The children didn’t need concern themselves with much, Mom and Dad had taken care of everything, a final act of love. And they are, at last, together again.
“There is a love beyond all that is told,
When two, who are blessed with one, earthly tie,
With minds never changing and hearts never cold
Love on through all ills,
Love on till they die.”
Over the next few days, I happened to overhear three, similar comments in three, different conversations. Once the mechanics of dying had been discharged, folks exhaled a great sigh of relief, literally. “I was waiting to be able to do that,” said one, with others voicing similar things. While grieving is not a linear process, it’s usually characterized by numbness, tearfulness, emptiness in the pit of the stomach, weak knees, shortness of breath and a tendency to sigh deeply. Observing, in all of us, what seemed a need to sigh I began to ponder, what is the physiological reason for a sigh? What is the value of a sigh?
Researchers at the Universityof Leuvenin Belgium, studying breathing patterns, think they’ve found the reason we sigh. It’s the Respiratory System’s “RESET” button. “Our results show that the respiratory dynamics are different before and after a sigh,” writes Elke Vlemincx and her co-authors in the latest issue of the journal Biological Psychology. “We hypothesize that a sigh acts as a general re-setter of the respiratory system. So that, in times of stress, when breathing is less variable, a sigh can reset the respiratory system and loosen the lung’s air sacs, or alveoli, which may be accompanied by a sensation of relief.”
A reset button for our breathing at times of great stress, at times when life can seem most cruel; how many different kinds of cool is that? And how many thousands of times does it occur in the grieving process? It’s been estimated by professionals that it takes 18-24 months for the average person to fully heal from such trauma. Maybe it’s the length of that journey that caused Robin Trower to reference “a long time crossin’ this Bridge of Sighs.”
The day of her interment was the week before Thanksgiving and the New York day was cold and bright. Marian was to be buried beside her beloved “Artie,” a reunion she’d joyfully anticipated for some time. Family, and a few friends, faithfully accompanied her to that holy ground and, encamped beneath their sorrow, they embraced as one.
The best any of us can do in those moments is to “weep with those who weep.” Tears have their own language and they spoke volumes that day. People do not grieve for monsters; we grieve for loveliness lost and that, sudden, vacuum pulled at every soul gathered.
In the past I’ve joked, “Stick your arm in a bucket of water up to your elbow and then pull it out. The size of the hole that’s left in the water when we remove our arm is how much people will miss us when we’re gone.” Maybe that will be true for people like me, but not for people like Marian. People like her are remembered forever, living forever in the hearts of the many whose lives she impacted for good. “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”
Though we are all appointed to sigh, such moments coming to every life, may God work miracles for those who cannot cease from their sighing.
When winter comes into our lives
With its uncertain sound
To strip us of our warmth and joy,
Our petals on the ground,
We may be tempted to give up;
To fold beneath life’s storm
We may be tempted to forsake
The hope which keeps us warm.
But we must learn to stand up tall;
To always face the sun,
And patiently await the day
When winter’s work is done.
For winter winds will cease to howl,
The snows will melt away,
And we shall see the beauty of
Another summer’s day.
And we will have renewed our strength
When summer’s wind first blows,
For God will whisper once again
The promise of a rose.
Glenda Fulton Davis