Sunday, April 5, 2009

Last Few Hours

Note: It really helped me to write about the last few hours I spent with Mary Monday night. This started as a blog post, so I'm posting it here as intended. However, I do know that some of Mary's family have discovered this blog. This note is to them: If you're uncomfortable reading about your daughter on a "public" blog (though this blog only has about 12 regular readers, most of them my friends), just put a note in the comments, and I'll remove it, no questions asked.

What a week.

What a terrible week.

I worked in a nursing home for about a year and a half when I was in my 20s. I had to quit, and a big reason was this: people kept dying. Of course, you think. It was a nursing home, after all. People are supposed to die there.

But plenty of people work in nursing homes as careers, and they don’t quit because people keep dying. They just keep going. Sure, they grieve for those they became fond of, but … it’s part of the job.

I couldn’t take that part of the job. I loved the residents, every one of them. When they died, a part of me died. The families of the deceased had to comfort me.

Some of us just aren’t cut out for certain types of work, and I wasn’t cut out for long-term care. Praise God for those who are.

I was around death a lot during that time. Most of the residents who died were, of course, up in age. Some of them weren’t. One young man, age thirty or so, had an advanced stage of cancer. A 42-year-old man had something wrong with his lungs … I can’t remember what it was, but it took his life maybe six months after we first met--and grew to love--him.

Mary and I talked about death as we drove to Anderson, SC, that evening of March 30 to the wake for our friend Carla’s brother, Jamie, who had died of cancer. Not the most cheering subject, but … well, we were going to a wake. We had both had grandparents die. She also told me about a friend of hers from high school who had been killed in a car accident, drag-racing, I think. What a shock it had been. We talked about how that kind of death is so much harder to deal with than the death of someone who has lived a good, long life.

When we talked to Carla that night at the wake, Carla told us how she had been able to spend a lot of time with her brother those last couple of weeks of his life. Cancer had ravaged his body and left him paralyzed from the neck down, but they had been able to talk, and they’d been able to say everything that needed to be said. Carla agreed that it was truly a blessing that they’d had that time together. Sure, no one wants to be given a death sentence … but it sure helps you, and those around you, to realize what’s truly important, and to act on that realization.

On the way home, Mary and I talked about that. Tragic as Jamie’s death was, his family was able to spend precious time with him those last few weeks before he died. They were able, on some level, to prepare for his death. They could say their goodbyes. And Carla could have some degree of peace about her brother's death.

How different a situation that was from her high-school friend, she said. She hadn’t been in touch with him for some time when she heard about his death. She went to his funeral. His girlfriend was just standing there next to the casket, crying. Mary said he didn’t look anything like she’d remembered him. It was almost like he was a stranger.

Our driving conversation wasn’t all morbid that evening. We talked about her upcoming wedding (she was getting married on June 20, which had been my start date for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2000; it was a wonderful day for starting new things, I told her). We talked about hiking, about gardening, about books. The usual things. We talked about her brother, Danny; about my niece, Ella. About how no one likes to go to wakes or funerals, but how it’s also important that we do go.

On the way through Georgia, she pointed out a trailhead where she and several co-workers had stopped awhile back. Several people from Drake had gone down to Anderson (yes, Anderson) for the funeral a co-worker's family member, and on the way back, they’d stopped and hiked up to a riverbank, where people could whitewater rafters passing by during the summer.

“I guess we won’t be stopping there on the way back!” I said, since it was going to be well after dark.

“No, probably not tonight!” We laughed, knowing that we would definitely have stopped and hiked under different circumstances.

After the wake was over, but before we left, Carla, Mary, and I joined in a big “group hug.” Then we invited her husband, Wayne, and her son, Thomas, into the hug, and we were all laughing. Later, we met the three of them at a local diner called The Clock. I try to remember what we talked about, but I don’t. I do remember laughing at Thomas’s strange selection of a meal (lasagna with a side of mac ’n cheese) and listening to him tell us about bowling.

We left the restaurant around 9:30 or 10, I guess. I don’t know. The long drive home became even longer when we missed a turn somewhere in South Carolina or Georgia.

“Do you recognize this?” Mary asked as we drove through a seedy-looking little town.

“You know, I was just thinking … no, this doesn’t look familiar.”

Turn on the light. Look at the map. We were headed for Cornelia, Georgia. We could keep going, then go north, or we could turn back and go the original route. It didn’t look like it would matter. Either way seemed equally long. We turned back … and mentally kicked ourselves for missing the turn, which seemed so obvious when we finally got back to it.

We alternated between talking and just sitting as she drove, not turning on music because we would start talking again and have to turn the music off so we could carry on a conversation. She talked a lot about her brother, about the “false alarm” they’d had back in January, when the hospital called and said there was a heart for him—great news for Danny, who had been on the transplant list for five years. But then … it wasn’t right. The hospital called back. False alarm.

“But it gave us hope,” said Mary that night. “After waiting so long and not getting ‘the call,’ it was almost like they’d forgotten about us.”

We were both tired as we rode along the dark roads of north Georgia, then western North Carolina. We cheered aloud when we finally saw the first sign for the Fun Factory, which is in Franklin. Almost to Franklin!

When we finally passed the Fun Factory, though, Mary spoke aloud what I was thinking: “Did it seem like it took a really long time to get here?”

Yup.

“When we get to my house,” I offered, “Do you want to come in for a cup of coffee or something?”

“No, if I drink coffee I won’t be able to sleep once I get home,” she said. “I’ll be fine. I drive home late all the time during development season.”

“More power to you,” I said. “Thanks for driving. I couldn’t have come if I’d had to go by myself. No way would I have been able to stay awake.”

“No problem!” she said, and she meant it.

Earlier that day, we’d made arrangements to go to the visitation for Carla’s brother. Plagued by headaches all weekend, I had gone to the doctor that afternoon. I’d e-mailed Mary:

I’m going to the doctor at 3 and don’t know if I’m going to come back to work afterward—I really want to go lie down. (Don’t we all!) But I’d really like to go tonight for Carla. So let me know what time would work best for you.
She e-mailed me back:

I am free whenever. I have no plans tonight. So really we can go when you feel up to it. How bout this…Lie down and I’ll stay here at work until you call me. Then I’ll drive to your house and pick you up and we will leave?
She sent me her cell phone number, which I quickly programmed into my cell phone that afternoon. I haven’t deleted it yet.

A few minutes before we got into Franklin, she put a CD in.

“Do you like Jewel?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I haven’t heard anything by her in years, though.”

“She just came out with a new CD, not too long ago,” Mary said. She put the music in and we listened until we got to my house.

I asked again if she needed to come in, use the bathroom, fill up her water bottle, whatever. She said no, she’d be fine.

I said, “Bye, see you tomorrow. Drive safe.” Or something like that. The usual pre-programmed farewell chitchat you say—and even mean—without thinking.

I went inside, she drove off. She was gone. I guess the Jewel CD was probably still playing when her car was struck by a drunk driver a half-hour later. Who knows. All I know is that I still can't believe she's gone.

I’ve kicked myself enough for not chatting more before I went inside, for not watching the road better (as a good passenger-seat navigator is supposed to do) when we missed the turn on the way home. For not being more strongly encouraging that she come in for a few minutes. I know it’s not my fault, but it’s hard to block out all the “what if’s” that have been bombarding my mind for the past few days. What if we’d been just a little earlier? Just a little later? What if things had been … just a little different?

One thing I do regret: that I didn’t tell her how excited and happy I was about our friendship. She joined our group at work last spring, and I’d gotten to know her better during that time. We both loved reading and talked often about books. She’d borrowed my deluxe edition of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and had loved it.

We both loved hiking and the outdoors. She’d just bought her first real backpacking pack, an Osprey Xenon, just a couple weeks before. We both loved the good homemade bread you could buy at Riverblaze Bakery, the little bake shop on Carl Slagle Road that was open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

We planned to do more hiking after tax season. Specifically, we planned to do some backpacking. We even tossed around the idea of a hike while her fiancé, Tony, was on his AT hike from Roanoke to Harpers Ferry. That probably would have been this weekend.

Another memory from that night: When we got to the wake that evening in Anderson, Carla was so glad to see us. She linked her arms in ours and introduced us to her family. We watched several cycles of the slide show that had been prepared showing scenes from her brother’s life. It was time well-spent. Dinner with them afterward was also time well-spent. I don’t regret that we did either, and neither did Mary.

Mary got to spend the last few hours of her life bringing comfort to a friend who needed comfort. How many of us, were we to die suddenly today or tomorrow, could have the same said of us?

Death is a harsh way of making us realize what things in life are important, and what things are not so important. But before we even think about those things, there is the sense that a piece of your heart has been ripped from your body. An aching emptiness, together when a dull, numb, hazy wondering of “What the hell just happened?”

“And why?”

Helen at the coffee shop believes it was God’s will, that God knows our death date before we’re ever born. My sister’s friend, Beth, who just survived a long struggle with cancer, prefers to word it this way:

“I have learned that God’s will is not always what we want, but a better word is God’s purpose, and that it is not her death that necessarily brings purpose, but her life. Her life had God’s purpose and that is what is important to remember.”

I have prayed, but not as much as I probably should. I admit, it is hard to pray in the face of such seemingly random, meaningless, unnecessary death.

Mary’s life definitely had purpose. She brought joy to so many of us with her beautiful smile, her easy, giving spirit, and her genuine kindness. I will always think of her when I am out on the trails.

Rest in peace, Mary Couey.

10 comments:

  1. This is beautifully written, Nina. I asked my Sunday School friends to pray for Mary's family (including her brother), friends, and coworkers. Be careful traveling today. We love you!
    Megan

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  2. Cornelia. That's where my grandparents lived and my father was born, and where my aunt still lives. I am so sorry about your friend, and keep thinking of the "what-ifs" just as you did. A friend of mine died in November in a car accident, and I did the "what-ifs" as well. There are always "what-ifs" and we have probably saved mored lives then we know with them. Of course, the "what-ifs" that saved lives aren't obvious. We don't know about THOSE "what-ifs" or how many lives were saved by them.

    Regardless, I'm so sorry that you lost a friend in such a cruel way. Life is amazing, and it only takes a second to snuff it out. My prayers are with you and Mary's family.

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  3. Thanks Nina for the post. I've also been doing the "what ifs". I had wanted to go with you and Mary to Anderson but couldn't figure out what to do with Kristen, so I didn't go. If I had then I would have driven because I have a bigger car. And so things would have been different. Maybe. Maybe not. I don't understand these things. But thanks for your post. I'm glad to hear about the last evening of Mary's wonderful life.

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  4. Thank you for coming up and talking with me at the memorial and for all your blogs. Mary had a ton of friends around Atlanta...she made a quiet impact on Many with her grace and with her smile and spirit. I knew Mary did not have a lot of friends in and around Hayesville just because it is so remote. It is a comfort to know that she had you as a friend and that she had good company the last night she graced the earth. Thank you so much.

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  5. Hi Nina,
    I am a friend of Mary's mom, Rose. My 19 year old daughter Rachael was also waiting for heart transplant like Danny and that is how we met. When Rachael and I met Rose and Danny, we became fast friends. Our families bonded instantly.
    My Rachael died a year ago December waiting for a heart. Rose has been such a comfort to me this past year and 4 months. Now it’s my turn to comfort her. I know more than ever why God put our paths together.
    Thank you for sharing this beautiful description of Mary’s last few hours. I know that it will bring some comfort to Rose. Maybe now, instead of the accident, Rose can replay in her mind the evening Mary spent comforting friends and enjoying conversation with a friend about the things she loved.
    I never had the opportunity to meet Mary in person, but knew her through Rose and through emails. She was a beautiful young woman. I feel as though I know her well because I see in Rose the wonderful things people describe about Mary.
    I agree with your friend who said God’s purpose is fulfilled through her life. God doesn’t do bad things, but in His love for us He allows us to have free will. That drunk driver used his free will to do something horrible.
    I see God’s love in Mary’s life – how she loved and appreciated nature, how she loved her mom and dad, her sister, brother, nieces and nephew, and of course Tony.
    What a beautiful woman she was!
    Rest in Peace, Mary!

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  6. Wow. Thanks for all the comments, everyone.

    Megan: Please tell your Sunday School friends thanks for the prayers. I'm sure Mary's family appreciates knowing that people far and wide are keeping them in their thoughts.

    Sherry: When we saw the Cornelia sign that night, I mentioned that I'd been there with you to visit your Aunt Nancy. I also think of Toccoa Falls and how we went there that afternoon to see the falls. Thanks for your prayers.

    Robin: I wish you could have come, too. Who knows if it would have changed the outcome. But it was a good trip.

    Melissa: Thanks so much for sharing your stories about Mary at the celebration of her life. I know that had to be so difficult to get up there and speak. Mary had several good friends here--we often wish she lived a little closer so we could see her more on weekends (other than at work!). But she loved Hayesville and wasn't about to leave it! :)

    Christine: I am so sorry about your daughter Rachael. I don't know Mary's mom well, but I can imagine what a comfort she must have been for you. I'm so thankful you'll be there to help support her through this!

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  7. I love this site. rose

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  8. Hi Nina,

    My name is Kristin and I'm one of Mary's friends from home. I've known about this post for a few days but haven't been able to bring myself to read it. Today, I decided it was time. And it is beautiful. Thank you, thank you for your beautiful rendition of Mary's last hours. I will read it again, and again, and again.

    I'm so glad you were able to come to the Celebration of Life last week. May you find comfort--may all of us find comfort--as we try to make sense of this.

    Kristin

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  9. Hi Nina,
    This is Mary's uncle Don again (or Donnie as she and Rose call me). I also find a great deal of comfort because of what you have done for Mary (this blog). I had written a thank you card to Drake but could not mail it because it was not good enough. Maybe I can say it here. Mary was very busy as you know, especially during "tax season". I remember the first year she worked there and had responsibilites in the department for South Carolina and New Mexico state return automation. This was about 3 years ago. Mary and I discussed her work a little because I was involved in software development for a company in Atlanta. I told Mary you find out quickly that you need the help and expertise from fellow employees. Mary told me the folks at Drake were very nice and helpful to her especially that first year when it was crunch time. I wanted to thank the fine folks at Drake for what they did to help Mary be successful there. Mary would want you all to have success now and in the future. I also wanted to say thanks to the Drake employees for the great showing at Mary's life celebration.
    Our son Zach and I spoke on the phone tonight. Zach is only 2 months older than Mary. This is still very hard but we find more peace every day. Fortunately I am very busy at my work as most of us are. I still have Mary on my mind all day. She was not just our niece but an exceptional person we all loved dearly. Carol and I pray for Mary every night and know we will see her again one day. Thanks again so much for this forum where we can all express our love for Mary. Mary's Uncle Donnie

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  10. Hi Don, I've forwarded your note to the folks that Mary worked with at Drake.

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