Her hands were so cold.
So she said. I told her to slide one into my circa 1995 chocolate brown leather jacket pocket. Along with mine, we filled the cubby and my heart revved like a little Honda 50cc in second gear. This was getting real. We laid on the freshly dewed grass beside Lake Bonnie and stared at the stars, at least that was my excuse, two cold hands melding hearts. That was our first romantic touch. 1996.
She drove a stick shift, a maroon 1995 Nissan Altima. I watched her hand as she changed gears. If you knew her, there was nothing surprising about the way that she drove. I could never figure out why she wanted to drive a stick, she was already short on hands between coffee, make-up application, a cell phone, and you know…driving. 10 and 2 was replaced by 6 and a knee. She loved to drive. For seven years she told me that the greatest thing that the disease had stolen from her was driving.
Three years ago, I found myself reaching for her wrist. She was unsteady and I couldn’t just hold her hand. I was afraid that it wasn’t sturdy enough to keep her upright if she began to fall. She was frail and delicate. I had to keep her out of the inevitable wheelchair as long as I could. Some semblance of normality. We moved from holding lovers’ hands to holding a wrist for balance as she stumbled through hallways and aisles and foyers and lobbies.
They say hindsight is 20/20, which isn’t actually true. Science has already shown us that we recreate the past by changing our memories. Framing them the way that we want to remember. Tiff hadn’t eaten in weeks. Barely drank anything each day for weeks. So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when she woke up with a 105 degree temp Sunday morning- August 26. I immediately phoned her nurse, but she wasn’t available. The on-call nurse came and helped get the temperature to a manageable target. Triple digits.
“Do you have a minute, I’d like to talk to you,” she said. I got mom and dad so that we could hear the gameplay together. Just another round of medicine I assumed. “Tiffanni has started to transition.”
Nine days before, Tiff and I saw a movie and ate at Dairy Queen. Well, I ate. She didn’t want anything and I couldn’t talk her into it. But I didn’t think anything of it. Transition. Three days before she went shopping with her dad. Transition. We did what most do. We argued with the nurse. She didn’t know Tiff and our situation. She was new to our family. Tiff just didn’t feel well, but would be fine when her fever went down.
“In my professional opinion, you have two to three days.” I’ve never heard more jarring words. There was no container to put them in. They just fell out onto the floor. No way to process, no way to decipher, life-changing words.
“Sometimes they rally. Sometimes they catch a second wind and go back to normal for awhile, but I wouldn’t expect that. We can come check on you whenever you need- just let us know.” And she left. Four people in the house and I had never felt more lonely in my life. Never more hopeless.
The kids came home and I sat them down on the couch. They immediately knew something was wrong. A few years prior, I sat them down on the couch to tell them that our 15 year old dog had died while we were on vacation. I think it was my tone, or the way that I said, “Sit down, I need to tell you something.” I’ve traumatized them to couch sitting family meetings. I’ve been working on redeeming the couch with family devotions, but they still have big eyes every time that we sit down for a conversation. I usually start with, “Everything’s fine. Let’s sit down for a few minutes and talk.” It takes a few minutes of conversation for their hearts to slow down. It’s amazing how a single act, a single moment can condition a person.
We cried a lot that day on the couch. The escapist part of me kept thinking that a few months from now, everything would be easier. The dad part of me just cried and listened. I was pretty good at both parts that day. “Can we see her,” they asked.
“Of course, but she probably can’t wake up. But you can climb in the bed with her and I bet that she knows you’re there.” So they took turns looking at her. Running their fingers through her hair. Laying in her arms. Crying on the bedsheet. Three puddles. Kids growing up in minutes. I felt sad. And guilty. And tired. And lonely. And protective. And somber. And a hundred feelings that don’t have names.
We spent the next few hours oscillating between pretending like it was a normal day and talking about how it wasn’t. Homework and a TV show. Dinner and showers. A video game and bedtime prayers. All the while Tiff lay, transitioning, in the next room. Living and dying, the full spectrum, under the same roof.
But then something miraculous happened. I went in to check on Tiff and she was awake staring at the ceiling. “Whatcha doing,” I asked.
“The kids want to see you,” I said. I called for them and they all came from their normal life grief havens. That was one of the most special moments of my entire life. Where the living and the dying held hands. Ever briefly, but held hands nonetheless.
Over the next hour, we talked, and laughed, and reminisced, and pretended we weren’t crying. I caught each kid turn away from Tiff to wipe tears, only to turn back and belt out a song. For the life of me, I can’t make sense out of what they sang to her. A three-part broken harmony rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Belted. Like top-of-the-lungs. Who knows what that was about. But they sang and Tiff smiled. Each kid kissed her goodnight, we prayed, and everyone went to bed. “She rallied,” I thought, “That nurse doesn’t know us.” And I went to sleep.
Around midnight she woke up again. I heard her stirring and woke up as well. “I’m hungry,” she said.
“You are? How about I go fix you a smoothie,” I responded. And she consented. She hadn’t eaten in days and here she was hungry. “What does that nurse know?” I thought. For the next hour we talked and laughed and she ate. Looking back, I think I knew it was our last conversation ever, but then again, hindsight plays a few games. I climbed in the bed with her and held her hand. Frail. Delicate. Sweet.
The next morning her fever skyrocketed. It was obvious what had happened. She woke up to tell us goodbye. I called in all of the family because the next few hours would be the last. By mid-afternoon we were in the last moments. Twenty-four hours filled with everything that life offers.
Her hands were so warm.
And she breathed her last breath. Just me and my sister talking in the ad hoc final stage bedroom while other family were taking a break. “It’s going to be a long night,” Hospice had said. It didn’t feel eventful or surreal. I had thought of that moment so many times over the last seven years. It wasn’t like any of those forecasted moments. Katye and I talked and I glanced back and forth at Tiff’s stomach, heavy breaths. Then they just stopped. I held her hand and waited for them to begin again. Please begin again. She was gone.
I’ve replayed those moments a hundred times in the last twelve months. Twelve months. I’m not sure how many of you are still there, but I just needed to put this on paper. For me. For the kids. However I remember those last few days, factual or framed, I just needed to remember. As I look back over the words above, they seem so fragmented and disheveled. Just a shotgun blast of random thoughts to remember those last few days. Words are a sorry substitute for pictures. And that’s what I remember most about those last days. Pictures. Glimpses.
Thank you for helping me to grieve well. For reading my words and for praying for my kids. Thank you for your kind thoughts, both stated and just felt. I am grateful to have such amazing family and friends. Thank you. Sincerely, Jeremy.