My doctor friend arrived shortly thereafter. Seeing her interrupted my thoughts and pleas to God that THIS was not supposed to be the way our story ended. I saw her walking down the hall and recall thinking “Wow, she got dressed nice!” I guess I expected a “roll out of bed and hop in the car in a hurry” type of a look. She looked like she might on any other day I had seen her in the PICU though I noticed something different. She had badges hanging around her neck – lots of badges that made her look and actually BE official. They gave her access. Those badges meant she was there for a purpose. She probably wears them every day at Hopkins. I only noticed them as she walked down the hall this time.
She set down her bag and leaned in as I was leaning against the doorframe. Some of the many people assembled had to move out of her way as she walked toward me and started leaning toward me ever so slightly. It looked as if she were going to give me a hug. I didn’t want to waste those seconds, so I waved her toward Catherine and barely whispered, “Go be a doctor.” She didn’t miss a beat and turned to her right. As she entered the room, I noticed all the professionals parted, somewhat like the Red Sea, to let her pass and get close to Catherine and the attending physician. I didn’t want to watch any more. I finally left my post and went to the room next door where Sarah was on her iPad and Brian was doing what he does so well – waiting.
Time warps when you’re in this sort of situation. I have no memory of what we talked about or did while we waited. I couldn’t even take a guess about how long we waited. I don’t recall if I got up and checked on Catherine or if I went to the bathroom or if I told Brian what happened when my doctor friend got there – all things that seem plausible. I do remember what happened when she and the attending came into the room however long later. And I wish I didn’t remember that because then, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.
I’m writing this, 24 days out, and I still wonder if it were a dream and wish that it were. I still see my doctor friend’s eyes, filled with so much compassion, knowing what she was about to say. I ache for her in that moment. She looked me straight in the eye and said so softly that I could barely hear her, “There’s nothing more we can do.” It was really more like she mouthed it than said it out loud. Or maybe that’s just how I heard it. I looked at Brian and Sarah and felt my heart drop to the floor. Actually, it was more than my heart – it was everything I’d ever known to be inside me – it all fell out of my body as I tried to absorb what she said. I’m sure I only recall bits and pieces from that moment forward. At some point, I heard her say that they were going to stop doing CPR. “It’s not your choice. We needed to come and tell you this is what’s going to happen.”
I must have looked at her with a face full of hope because I don’t recall asking anything. I simply remember her saying, “It’s been too long. There’s too much damage. Even if she were to come back.”
In a split second I thought, “That doesn’t matter – her brain and body were already damaged. Let’s keep trying.” I never said that out loud though. I knew.
I knew in the way I had known she was dead the minute I looked at her in bed at the house when the nurse said she wasn’t breathing. And I knew it was time to let go. I knew my doctor friend was right. As much as I didn’t want any of it to be real, I knew.
She continued, “They did everything right. We couldn’t have done any more at Hopkins. We wouldn’t have had anything there that they didn’t have here. They did a good job here and tried everything.” She emphasized ‘everything’ with such emotion that I knew she really meant it. It came out more like EVVVV-RY-thing.
“And the story that your nurse told you?” she continued, “that seems plausible. Given the timeline and her body – her body was warm – that seems to be a plausible story. I don’t think she fell asleep and missed this,” she said. Somehow that was comforting. After more than a decade with nursing, we had had too much experience with nurses falling asleep. Whether that did or didn’t happen, I thanked her for giving us that story. I knew the story we held in our head would form the basis for our healing down the road.
When I first heard the news, It took a few heartbeats for the tears to come. I remember thinking that was odd and wondering why I wasn’t crying. Did I not care? Had I prepared for this mentally somehow? Then with one look, Brian and Sarah and I collapsed into each other’s arms as the tears fell out of our bodies. I think the doctors evaporated to leave us with the hole in our family we would never ever be able to replace. And in that moment, I could barely even comprehend it.
The next event I remember was my doctor friend and the attending coming in and telling us they were cleaning Catherine up and that we could go see her in a few minutes. I can’t even fathom what I was thinking or feeling then. We walked into her room and they had put her in a yellow hospital gown. She actually looked great. “I never knew you looked so good in yellow, Catherine,” I said as I leaned over to give her a kiss. And weirdly I thought how I did know she looked good in yellow and why didn’t we dress her in yellow more often? Looking back on it these thoughts feels surreal. They make no sense. And then there was a thought that made perfect sense – She looked just like she always did – lying still. Eyes closed. A faint pink in her cheeks. Catherine.
“She looks normal,” I said to Brian. “Maybe she’s not dead,” I thought to myself. And then I saw a stream of blood flow from the corner of her mouth. “She doesn’t do THAT normally,” I said and asked Brian to have them come clean her up again as I tried to hold back the tears. They had warned us it might happen, but I didn’t want to see it. “I don’t want this to be my last memory of her, Brian. This isn’t the image I want.”
He had been wiping the blood with the blanket just like it was drool. He used the exact same tenderness I had seen in him every single day of her life. And he was crying. I had only seen him shed a tear maybe one time in the past, and I wasn’t even sure it happened. The day we learned Catherine was blind, when she was still in the NICU, he turned away for a moment, and I always believed he must have cried a bit. I never asked though. Sometimes dignity is more important that knowledge. This time, I watched the tears flow as he touched her like he always had. “Hey Catherine!” he even said as we had walked into the room, just like he said when he greeted her after school.
We took some photos. That may seem odd. It did to me too. But when it’s the last time you’ll see your 14-year-old baby, you don’t want to risk forgetting. And they’re some of the most beautiful photos I’ve ever taken of Brian and Catherine. Except for the expression on his face, you would simply think she was sleeping beside him.
After a few moments, I went next door to see if Sarah wanted to see Catherine. She did. She understood about death because in the past 14 months, her pet ladybug, Ellie, had died; her hamster, Squeak, had died; her Gran had died; and her Ma Maw had died. And now her sister had died. That’s a lot of death for anyone, much less a 10-year-old. No wonder when I get stressed at home now and start yelling, she’s terrified that I’ll not be able to breathe and then pass out and die.
Sarah bravely walked into the room and stood beside her sister. She reached out to touch Catherine and run her hands through her hair. She leaned over and gave her a kiss. Though she had said she didn’t want a photo with her, I snuck some from behind her head. “She doesn’t know what she wants, right now,” I thought. None of us does. And the other day I caught Sarah looking at photos of us with Catherine after she had died. She paused for a long time on the ones of her reaching out to touch Catherine. I think we all must want a connection to “the last time” – whatever the last time is.