Friday, December 30, 2011

Sally Branch Passes Away

My mom’s friend Sally Branch died yesterday. She was a regular blog reader, the go-to bird person in Wellfleet, and the neighbor with whom my parents always shared Thanksgiving dinner. Sven tells me I took him to meet Sally on the way back from our first walk to Dyer Pond. Who could resist her total lack of pretentiousness and her gentle grace? Here was a lady who seemed to radiate goodness. Sally spoke with the soft tones of a proper West Virginian, a drawl rather than an accent, despite having lived in Massachusetts for decades. For years she would walk past our house, with her binoculars, searching for the elusive oriole. Her many friends deeply regretted her stroke, in late spring. She had been bedridden ever since. Over the past six months, I visited as often as possible. On one of my first visits, I printed out a recent blog post and read it to her. On one of my final visits, the hospice nurse was preparing to leave when I pushed open the bedroom door. There had just been a short conversation about death, and Sally seemed afraid, needing to hear more, so I lingered in the background, unwilling to interrupt.

The nurse bent over the hospital bed again and said it was all right to die, that Sally was going to a wonderful place, but would not go alone on the journey. Someone would be there to guide her. “That person may come to you in a dream,” she concluded.

“Is that you?” Sally asked, wide-eyed. “Will you go with me?”

“No,” the nurse said in a comforting voice. “People you have loved will accompany you.”

I knew what she was talking about and how marvelous it was: the “wow-oh-wow” moment Steve Jobs’s sister Mona Simpson reported witnessing at his death.

As the nurse gathered her things and left, I thought back to caring for my elderly mom during her last months on earth and realized both women were fortunate to have benefited from hospice at the end of their lives. It occurred to me that hospice should be a human right. Everyone should be able to die with dignity, in their own bedroom.

Sally seemed to have dozed off. Her breathing apnea had not yet started, nor had the deep breaths that preceded death by two days. I approached the bed, sat down, and took her hand.

“Thank you for being such a good neighbor,” I said, not sure if my words would register. “Thanks for giving us so much joy.”

“It’s mutual,” Sally managed to croak back.

When I returned the following afternoon, her eyes were closed but she reached out her hand to hold mine. We sat there in silence for a while. Words are superfluous at such times, but some important ones had been missing in Sally’s life of late, so I said them on behalf of all her friends who had not been able to come or felt turned off by the approach of death or lived far away or whose brains were not wired for empathy: “I love you, Sally,” I whispered, stroking her cheek.

“Thank you,” came the response. “I love you, too.”

Sally will remain with me in memory. I will think of her every time an oriole streaks across the sky, whenever I encounter peanut-flavored dog biscuits, which she invented for a beloved pet, and, of course, in walking past her house to Dyer Pond ...