“I can’t feel a pulse,” Mae says, her rose-lacquered fingertips probing the carotid of her dying friend Dora. Mae’s a just-retired nurse, so what she says carries weight. Even though she’s here in her civilian capacity, like the rest of us, to watch Dora die.
Mae wipes a mascara-blackened tear, and leaves the hospital room. To find a nurse, she says, sobbing. To make it official.
Edward, Dora’s husband of forty years, bows to her fresh-dead ear and says, in a broken stage whisper, “That’s it, girl. You’re free now. No more pain. No more suffering. You put up a hell of a fight, girl. One hell of a fight.”
My wife Amy, Edward and Dora’s only child, stands with her father beside the deathbed, holding his hand by the fingers, but otherwise looking struck numb, waiting. Waiting for the pain she’s girded for to seep in, as her mother’s life had just seeped out.
“We had so much fun,” Edward says. “So much fun.”
It had taken Dora a long time to die so young, at sixty-three. Robbing Edward and Amy, actuarially speaking, of at least fourteen more years of adoring her—and following her decisive, unyielding lead.
It was Dora’s smoking that finally killed her. Ever since her college days at Sarah Lawrence, she’d smoked voraciously, defiantly, despite decades of increasingly dire science. “It’s my only vice,” she would say, inhaling into an ever-deepening wheeze. “I damn well intend to enjoy it.”
So she did, enjoying four packs a day. Until—about seven years ago—her emphysema had gotten so bad she couldn’t inhale anything unless it was piped in through an oxygen tube. And her COPD made walking across the living room a gasping misery.
Over time, as Dora bent and crumbled to her diseases, her prominent social standing in Norfolk withered, and she became a virtual shut-in. Edward became her eyes and ears to the outdoor world and ran her endless errands. Amy, working up north in Manhattan, was ever on call to rush south and pitch in.
My marriage to Amy three years ago thrust me into this triangle, dislodging it. But even then, it was apparent that Dora’s afflictions signified an unmentionable—but no less irreversible—cascade.
Mae brings the ICU nurse, who also can’t find a pulse. “We need an EKG to make sure,” she says, and excuses herself. To confirm Dora is truly dead, to convince the disbelievers, specific layers of protocol must be observed.
As if on cue, Dora’s left eye pops open.
Amy and I paid for our own wedding. We saw it as our event, our day. Dora didn’t. After all, the wedding would put Dora on public trial: her daughter’s chosen mate, her daughter’s wedding dress, her daughter’s taste in venue, food, flowers, and wine—her daughter’s worthiness—all bared for the elite of Norfolk’s Jewish society to witness and weigh, endorse or condemn. A day that would color the course of Dora’s future standing.
The result: months of heavy and heated negotiations between us and Dora—with Edward’s tacit, unwavering, unquestioning support—about every niggling detail. From her insistence on a klezmer band (“Didn’t you just love Fiddler on the Roof?”), to changing “honor” to “honour” in the invitation (“That’s just what’s done, dear”), to Amy wearing—despite a disparity of several dress sizes—her grandmother’s yellowed 1947 wedding dress (“It can be tailored and cleaned, dear”) and elbow-length gloves (“It’s a must for a black-tie affair, dear”). When we rejected all these offensives, Dora said, “Well, if you both continue to insist on doing things your way, your father and I will simply boycott the wedding and tell everyone else not to come. You’ll have a half-empty ballroom with only his people there. Then you’ll have an event that’s talked about.”
We reached détente by compromising on the invitation’s wording (we’d be honoured), the menu (asparagus instead of green beans), and kiwi fruit on the wedding cake. Dora’s daughter was married in the glass-vaulted, Florentine-inspired marble and stucco expanse of the Chrysler Museum’s central court. A memorable affair that Dora only mildly criticized out loud: “I told them these flowers wouldn’t photograph well ... No, they insisted on the pinot noir ... At least they agreed on the asparagus.”
There was one other compromise. Dora had also demanded that we turn the seating chart sideways so that she and Edward could sit near one of the grand Renaissance archways leading out of the court, with her wheelchair and oxygen tank hidden in a nearby broom closet.
In every one of the wedding photos featuring Dora and Edward (scores of them), he’s smiling, beaming. She’s holding her breath. The closest thing to a smile that she could manage—in these images that would be preserved forever—is a curled-up grimace.
That day, as Amy and I were celebrating our love, Dora was fighting just to look normal. Because no one—family, friends, or foes—could ever, ever be allowed to know that Dora wasn’t herself. That she, Dora Still, founder of the Hampton Roads Poverty Law Project and the Norfolk Community Theater, was weak. That in her own kitchen, Edward put folded guest towels on the countertop for Dora to rest on and catch her breath, hunched over on her forearms, so she could load the dishwasher.
The nurse returns with the EKG and straps it on Dora, even though her skin has turned gray-green. A few seconds later she’s finally satisfied, and announces to the nine death-watchers encircling the bed, “Yes, she’s gone.”
The nurse starts to wrap things up. She pulls at the taped-down IVs, ripping them from the slack skin. She clicks off the machine that had been forcing oxygen into Dora’s unwilling lungs.
She closes the corpse’s opened eye.
She snaps shut its gaping, flaccid jaw.
Edward sobs. “I can’t believe she’s gone,” he says. Amy grips his fingers tighter. “She was my best friend, sport. My soul mate. We had so much fun. So much fun.” He sniffs, turns to the nurse, and says, “I’d like to brush her hair.”
A momentary hitch ensues while we collectively conjure that image. I take a deep breath and take in the aroma of disinfectant and death. “Certainly, Mr. Still,” the nurse says, “but I should clean her up first. Folks, can you all clear the room for a few minutes?” She shoos us out with both hands. “I’ll call you back in when she’s ready, Mr. Still. Then you and Miss Amy can spend some more time with her.” We and the other death-watchers shuffle out into the corridor.
Another nurse leads Edward, Amy, and me into a vacant Transfusion Room. We sit down, crossways, on pre-reclined chairs. Mae and the others have vanished, leaving us to our own trances.
A few hours earlier, when the readouts on Dora’s monitors dipped into single digits, the rabbi had been called in. He herded us all into the Consultation Room so that he—covering for the vacationing Beth El Rabbi, who’d been the family’s rabbi for decades—could interview us and figure out what to say at the funeral. According to the unanimous testimony of all present, Dora had been a brilliant, energetic, educated, refined, well-traveled, accomplished, and humorous woman who had worn the unchallenged mantel of matriarchy over the world-scattered tribes of Felds and Seltzers, a mini-Diaspora. She was the news bureau for both families, transmitting information throughout the network by phone, e-mail, and even longhand letters. And whenever she deemed necessary, filtering and shading the content to achieve a desired result.
During Dora’s final days, the hospital bed had become her command center. Even with one whole leg in the grave, things were—as ever—to be carefully orchestrated. Dying directives were to be honored as covenants. First things first: no intubation; no extraordinary life-saving measures; no funeral home service, everything graveside. Next, the lists: those not allowed to visit her at the hospital, those uninvited to the graveside funeral, and those to be barred from the shiva house. To make sure the word got out about who was in and who was out, she dispatched Edward to make the right calls to the right people. Her last cogent words to Amy: “Defrost the leg of lamb for dinner.”
As the rabbi closed his notebook, now full of useful notes, Edward said, “I’m going to miss her.”
“As will we all,” the rabbi replied. “Judging from everything I’ve heard in this room, we’ve lost a remarkable woman, a formidable personage. We will not lack for fitting words to commemorate her life.”
Edward sobs anew. “I’m going to miss her, sport,” he says to Amy. “Your mother was everything to me. Everything.” His sobbing has taxed his lungs and escalates to a gummy coughing fit. Edward’s lung cancer, caused by Dora’s second-hand smoke, is his own death sentence.
After a jag of desperate hacking, he recovers and manages a corrugated, gurgling sigh. “What am I supposed to do now, sport? Taking care of her was my full-time job. Every day was planned out for me. Now I have to start all over. What am I supposed to do with myself?”
This lament reminds me of a story Amy told me. A few years back, Dora had forgotten to include frozen creamed spinach—an essential ingredient for that night’s dinner—on her errand list, and sent Edward right back out to get some. He couldn’t find any at Harris Teeter or Food Lion.
But Edward was VMI and US Marine, by God. He was on a mission and under the withering pressure of the looming dinner hour and Dora’s displeasure, surrender was not an option. He finally succeeded at Farm Fresh. When he reached down to grab the box, he had a grand mal seizure, right there in the frozen food section. After about a minute, he got up, thanked the circled crowd for their concern, and staggered through the checkout and out the sliding doors, mission accomplished, spoils secured.
A tall Black man in a dark chalk-striped suit and solid lavender tie enters the Transfusion Room. At his side is yet another nurse hugging a clipboard crammed with multicolored forms. “Hello, folks,” he says, his round face softened with respectful solemnity. “I’m Chaplain Chavous. I’m very sorry for your loss. If you’d like, we can sit and talk and pray for a while.”
“No thanks, Chaplin,” says Edward, looking down at his folded veiny hands. “Much appreciated, but the rabbi’s already been here.”
The Chaplain fingers the heavy gold cross hanging from his neck. “That’s fine,” he says. “Just fine. Then I will take my leave.” He graciously shakes our hands, bowing and smiling with pastoral empathy, and leaves the room. Tough job.
The clipboard nurse says, “Sorry, folks, but I must ask a few questions. I hope you can understand that they’re necessary, even at this painful time.”
“You go right ahead and do your job,” says Edward, VMI, US Marine, suppressing a viscous cough.
Referring to a form on her clipboard, she asks Edward about the “arrangements” for the body. Will there be a funeral? Burial or cremation? Have we made contact with a funeral home? If the funeral home doesn’t pick up the body today, they’ll have to put it in the morgue, and “storage charges will be incurred.”
Edward confirms that everything is set with the Carlisle Funeral Home for a pickup later today. The nurse makes a few check marks, jots a few notes, and nods. She smiles at us with wan nurse-like empathy, mutters aimless condolences, and departs. Tougher job.
Edward reverts to his anguish. “I’m going to miss her so much,” Edward says. “We had so much fun together. So much fun. She put up a hell of a fight, I’ll tell you. One hell of a fight.”
He’s repeating himself, these mantras of grief. Keening, something like the Black women did in New Orleans after Katrina drowned everything. But more restrained, without the full body sway. Damn straight: in Vietnam, this man had felt pieces of his buddy’s brains hit his boots but had to keep quiet, keep low, and keep moving. Soldiering on. With deportment. The toughest job.
“Your mother showed us how to live. And how to die. She showed us what courage is all about.”
The clean-up nurse retrieves us, and we re-enter the hospital room. Taking one look, I know that coming back in here was a mistake. This last horrific snapshot of Dora’s corpse—inert, ashen, vacated—was far worse than I’d imagined and will be indelible.
Edward, rummaging through the personal effects on the bedside table, coughs convulsively. “Anyone have a hairbrush?” he asks, rasping. “I thought she had one here.”
Not waiting for an answer or noting the conflicted revulsion on Amy’s face, he extracts a comb from the inside pocket of his blazer and begins combing ex-Dora’s hair, immediately encountering tangles and knots. He holds down the head while he pulls through. “I’m going to miss you, girl. We had so much fun together. So [yank]. Much [yank]. Fun [yank]. ”
At 6:30 the next morning, the first day of shiva, I’m lying in bed alone. Amy has left the door to the guestroom slightly ajar so the house cat can have free range. I smell fresh-brewed coffee and hear spoons clinking against porcelain. Edward emits a few mucky coughs, then says to Amy, “You know, sport, your mother—sometimes—did things the hard way. She ruffled a lot of feathers. A lot of feathers.”
It’s about 8:00 p.m., and the first night shiva crowd (about fifty in all) has thinned to a handful of loiterers out on the patio overlooking the Elizabeth River. Edward has retired to his bedroom, hacking and spent. Amy and I are combining deli trays and Glad-Wrapping them for tomorrow’s sitting.
“My father told me something today that I never knew,” Amy says, her voice catching. “On the day Mom was first diagnosed, when she and Dad were driving home from the doctor, she told him to divorce her.”
I stop untangling a swatch of wrap and look up.
“Mom said she would end up an invalid, and Dad would end up having to take care of her full-time. She said that’s not the life she’d planned for them, and she wanted him to be happy. So he should divorce her.”
The self-sticking plastic mess finally untangles. I wrap the half-sour pickles.
“So guess what Dad said? ‘No way.’ Told her he took a vow for better or worse and damn well intended to honor it. Period. The subject never came up again.”
“Hi Dad,” Amy says into the phone. “What’s up?” She’s been back home in Philly for a few days, after spending three weeks in Norfolk to get Edward “stabilized.” She checks on him daily.
“You joined a pottery class? That's great … Have you been eating? What did you have for dinner? ... You had what? Ice cream?”