Those of you who follow me on Facebook already know that I went home to Maine a couple of weeks ago to be with my sister Wendy, who had just put her husband George into Hospice. He was in end-stage liver failure and there was nothing more to be done. I arrived on a Wednesday night. My sister and I sat with George for several hours on Thursday and again on Friday, then on Saturday morning at 11:00 she got “the” call that he’d taken a turn for the worse and it wouldn’t be long.
We stayed at the Hospice throughout that long, long day. I’ve never kept a vigil before. I’ve heard it described before as, “both horrible and beautiful”. Horrible, yes, because of the sights and sounds as the body struggles toward its final breath. Beautiful, though, because he was loved and surrounded by family and friends. He wasn’t alone at the end.
It was one of the hardest days I’ve ever experienced. I will never forget the look on my sister’s face as she said goodbye to her husband of twenty-five years. They’d been together since she was 18… since I was eight. He was just fifty-six. It was shattering… one moment he was laboring for breath, the next moment there was eerie silence.
But we weren’t in the room at that moment.
Throughout the day we’d sit in the room, with WBLM (Maine’s classic rock station, and George’s favorite) playing on the radio next to his bed. We’d talk to him, and talk to the relatives and friends that filed in and out all day to say their goodbyes. We stayed in the room until we just… couldn’t… then we’d take a break. We’d sit out in the car and listen to the radio, or sit in the Hospice sanctuary room or living room. We’d recompose, and then go back to George’s room. From noon until just before 7:00 this pattern continued.
Just before 7:00, my sister and I went out to the car, with Wendy’s daughter (20) and daughter-in-law (29). As we sat in the silence, we started talking about calling in a song dedication to WBLM in George’s honor, so he’d hear it in his room from the radio that had been playing all day long. We talked about Ozzy, and Aerosmith, and some other hard rock bands. For some reason (maybe to get inspiration?) I turned on the car radio, and at that moment “Burning Down The House” by the Talking Heads was just starting.
My sister yelled, “Oh my God, that’s PERFECT. That’s the Sanborn National Anthem! Why didn’t we think of it before? CRANK IT UP!”
The “Sanborn National Anthem” is a joke shared between George and his brothers, and whenever they’d hear the song they’d stop what they were doing and salute the radio. The entire family adopted this habit whenever they heard the song, and George would often insist on playing it when they’d have their legendary bonfires.
I cranked up the music, and Wendy hollered, “This is for you, George!” All four of us rocked out, heads bobbing, singing along and burning off some of the tension, some of the sadness that we’d been carrying with us all day. I can’t imagine what we must have looked like to anyone pulling into the Hospice parking lot at that moment. We were smiling, having a happy moment that felt like an island amid the grief, and thinking about all the good times we had with George.
Just as the song faded out, I saw George’s oldest son come running out to the car. He said we had to come in, quickly. My sister and I looked at each other, got out of the car, and walked hand-in-hand back inside to George’s room.
He was gone. He left as Burning Down the House played on the radio next to him, with his sister holding his hand. It was as if he heard our conversation in the car and said, “What song did you THINK I would want? Guess I’ll have to do it myself.” He died as his wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, and I (his “sister the sister,” he used to say) rocked out and celebrated George’s life.
I don’t know if you believe in such things, but I ABSOLUTELY knew this was George’s way of saying goodbye, and going out on his own terms. It was… well, it was kind of awesome, really. When my sister realized what had happened, she looked at me with huge eyes and said, “He knew. That was when he wanted to go. He didn’t want me to see that last breath, he wanted me to be happy.” It’s a hugely comforting memory for my sister, and one that brings amazement with the retelling to those who knew George best.
So, this is for you George. I’ll smile and think of you every time I hear this.