Sunday, January 5, 2014


George, my dear neighbor, lay stiff in the hospital bed, the crisp sheet tightened just under his chin. Barbara says he looks much better than hours before when he was gasping for air, his mouth wide open, his body in distress. He’d had a stroke. I’d say an unexpected stroke, but when do we expect a stroke? His stroke came in the morning hours of a Tuesday just a couple of days after what Barbara describes as one of the best weekends they’d ever had together. Museum visits. Dinners out. Temple service. Friends galore.

Barbara and I sit on the couch-turned-bed in the hospital room staring at George, waiting for that moment when she would have to say goodbye to her husband of sixty-five years. We both know the moment is inevitable, but prefer to postpone it as long as possible. “What do I do with all the firewood that George put on our back porch? There is so much! I truly don’t know what he was thinking.”’

“Let’s not worry about that now,” I hold her hand. “I’m sure it’ll be put to good use.”

“His jewelry equipment!” she cries out. “It’s very valuable. I don’t know what to do with it.” Barbara bows her head. I could feel grief pressing around her frail frame like a vice. Just weeks from celebrating her ninetieth birthday, I cannot imagine her surviving its painful grip. It comes in waves, she says. For brief glimpses, she sits erect and eager, and is chatty. And then, without warning, she folds into me, first with her head and then collapsed shoulders until she is small like a child in my embrace.

“We don’t have to think about that now,” I stroke her back. “I’m sure your friend, Bill, can help you with that.” She talked about their close friend who owns a jewelry store in town, one of the many people who would miss George terribly.

“The Christmas cards!” Barbara yelps. “They’re halfway done. Every year, I would sign my name and hand the card over to George. He would then write something personal and sign his name. The pile is halfway finished. What do I do about the cards?” Her watery eyes burrowed within her small face stare at me, pleading for answers. The triviality of the wood, the jewelry equipment and the cards occupy Barbara enough to distract her from that moment in time. I prefer the talk of wood, jewelry and cards because I could actually do something about those things. 

I circumvent that moment in time right alongside Barbara. “You can wait and decide later what to do," I offer. "Lots of people are sending their Christmas cards later and later. Some people even send them as Valentine’s cards.” My blabbering only leads us back to the inevitable. George and Barbara were lovers like no other. George would have celebrated Valentine’s Day with some poignant acknowledgement of their love. He might have fashioned her a ring from a quarter. Or perhaps he’d leave her a tender poem on a napkin, a token she’d carry in her pocket and share with me, most certainly. Or they’d stroll down Craigmoor Road, a path they’d traveled as a couple, holding hands, every day for the seventeen years we have lived across the street from them. And on February 14, the skip in their step just a bit bouncier because it would be a day where they’d have an excuse to celebrate their love even more. Not that they ever needed one.

Mentioning Valentine’s Day invites the sadness back into the room. We both turn to look at George. The social worker walks in. She had just talked to Tricia, Barbara's daughter-in-law. Tricia is planning to head over to Barbara's house to meet her there. Isn't that great? The hint to move the process along falls like a lead balloon.

"I don't want to leave this room," she says.

"I know," I respond and pat her knee.

"Because I know what it means when I leave this room."

"Yes," I say. "I understand."

The pressure to say goodbye mounting, Barbara shouts out from the couch-turned-bed, "Why can't I come with you, George?" Barbara asks him in the same way she would have asked to go to the store. "I want to come with you! Please don't leave me here alone!" I feel tears welling up from my insides. I could sob right there, but stop myself, choosing instead to posture as something solid to support Barbara. She turns to me again, her eyes looking for a reprieve from the pain. “Do you know how he died?” she asks.

“From a stroke?” I ask.

“No,” she explains. “How he died here in this room.”

I shrug my shoulders, still gulping back the salty waters that pool at the back of my throat.

“I was sound asleep and woke up startled,” she begins the story. “I don’t know what came over me, but I woke up thinking, ‘I need to kiss George. I need to kiss George.’ So I walked over to his bed where he was breathing very heavily. It sounded like his chest hurt. I took his face into my hands and gave him a big kiss. My George! I love you, George!” Barbara stops to blow her nose. I long to have a tissue of my own.

“After I kissed him, I stood back,” she continues. “Then he took a big gasp of air, the biggest of the night, and just died. Right then and right there after the kiss, he died. His chest stopped moving. He was gone.”

As sad as the story is that she is telling me, I sit thinking how perfect a death that was for George who in life would have had it no other way. Kissing Barbara. He would take her kiss with him always. That would be the only way for him to die, with her kiss on his lips. I drift in thought, imagining that sacred moment when Barbara’s kiss spurred George into the ocean of reality, the space of eternal love. I feel blessed to have witnessed their love.

The social worker returns to the room and encourages Barbara to get her coat. This gentle push is just the nudge Barbara needs to stand up and walk over to George. I suggest that I go and get the car, pull it out to the front, but the social worker asks me to stay with Barbara. She might need someone there when she says goodbye. But being there in their sacred space feels intrusive and awkward, like someone farting in church or watching home movies of a couple’s lovemaking. Wrong. The social worker smiles at me, assuring me that I need to stay so I do. 

I glance away, hugging my coat, as Barbara stands over George. “I wish I could go with you,” she sniffles. Then Barbara is quiet as she reaches over and kisses George's physical face one last time.