Natascha Dea Burdeinei and Tora Estep

Tora Estep
“What Lies Beneath”
Oil on Canvas
Inspiration piece

Natascha Dea Burdeinei

The morphine push didn’t take long.

One moment I was holding my lucid and sagacious 92-year-old uncle’s hand, explaining to him exactly what the nurses were doing to him while interjecting we love you’s. He was anxious and worried the nurses who removed his high-flow oxygen and replaced it with 2 liters of nasal cannula oxygen were trying to save him; not letting him go as he requested I give them consent to do when I arrived at his Bergen County hospital room, bags in hand, two days prior:

“Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re here. It’s time. I need you to sign the papers.”

The next moment, he began to say something, then held up his finger in understanding as he felt the morphine. He nodded at me.

I squeezed his hand.

“I’m going to stay with you. I’ll be right here.” I kissed his forehead and laid my cellphone near his ear and pushed play on iTunes so the jazz albums I’d copied onto my laptop and synced to my phone before I left Chicago would begin.

The love of his life, who passed away during the pandemic, resurrected digitally to sing him out of this world and into the next as I sat with him, talking to him, making sure he knew how loved he was as the morphine took effect.

“It’ll be about 24 hours,” the nurse said. “Are you going to stay?”

Yes, of course, I was going to stay.

My staying genuinely surprised her, and it broke my heart a little more than the week already had. But I understood. We cared for my mother-in-law in our home for the last years of her life. I witnessed her community and loved ones disappear when her dementia progressed. Family and friends stopped coming by. “I just can’t see her like this,” they’d say as I’d gently remind them this visit is for her, not them. They’d pause and look at me as if begging me to release them from the obligation. At the end of her life, it was just my husband and I holding her hand in her bedroom, next to ours. The hospice nurse we paged, who said she could be to us in 15 minutes, hadn’t even arrived. She got stuck in traffic. It would be an hour before she walked through our front door.

“I’ll be here till the end or you kick me out,” I told his nurse.

She asked me if I needed anything and generously made up a bed for me at the foot of his bed.

“If you need something to eat or drink, go into the nurses’ break room and get it or come find me,” she said as she left the room. “I’ll be close by.”

Sleep does not come easily when you’re keeping vigil. Especially in pandemic times, when masks are required to be worn inside a patient’s hospital room.

Yet, sleep is a must. Decisions have to be made that require presence and a focused mind. I tossed and turned for hours, finally falling asleep but bolting out of bed every time his breathing changed or the nurse came in to check on him.

The moon was full and massive that night. Glancing outside his hospital room window, I saw two deer in a patch of grass near the now empty visitor’s parking lot, illuminated by that massive moon. The kind of moon Shanley wrote about. I described it aloud as my uncle slept and his body slowed down, with just enough morphine and oxygen attached to him to keep him comfortable.

He turned 92 the day after I arrived. We celebrated over frozen custard, his chosen last meal. From Rita’s, because I couldn’t get Coney Island’s frozen custard to him quickly enough. We called his loved ones. Shared stories. He gave me a list of writers to read.

“Have you read Rushdie?” he asked, “dear God, I hope he doesn’t die.” The news of his stabbing shocked us both as CNN shouted it from the television mounted from the ceiling in his hospital room. It never shut off. As if hospitals aren’t loud and sad enough without a cacophony of talking heads weighing in on the atrocities of the day.

“I have read Rushdie,” I assure him, “but I’ll reread him. It’s been a while,” his head nods in approval.

I told him about the time I saw Vanessa Redgrave commune with Tennessee Williams’s spirit in the middle of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, as they etched Williams’s name into their Poet’s Corner, and how holy that moment felt; he told me about the time he worked with Tennessee Williams and how closely connected the sacred and profane are on stage.

Profane, he said, like his aging body hooked up to hospital equipment. His hands and arms were black and blue as if someone had painted them in ink, tentacles of IVs coming out of his body.

“Honey, I’m sorry I’m not the life of the party right now. Do you need anything? Go get a coffee. I’ll take a rest while you do that, then we’ll talk about the war.”

The war. The Korean War. He was drafted.

He was an explosives specialist working in an armory in Alabama. After the war, he’d parlay his time there into expertise in pyrotechnics on stage productions.

I signed the consent papers to remove him from oxygen the morning after his birthday, after checking in to make sure he’d spoken with everyone and said everything he’d needed to say.

He had.

I told him I believed his beloved was waiting for him to join her. A newly ordained minister raised Episcopalian like he was, I still feel like I am playing dress-up in religious matters.

When he was still lucid, he told me he hoped that would be the case, but wasn’t sure heaven existed. To be honest, I don’t know if heaven exists either, at least not in the way it’s described in many churches and movies. But I’ve witnessed enough dying and death to know that love enters the rooms of those who loved in this world. Love enters in their last days, hours, minutes, and seconds from some invisible plane and is visible in their countenance and peace. Surely that is heaven.

They pronounced him dead at 2:52 am on my fifth night in town. I’d stepped out of the room while he still had a strong heartbeat. Suddenly, his heart rate crashed, and he took his last breath. As if he was waiting for me to go get a cup of coffee. He was gone and pronounced in mere minutes.

I reentered the room and told him and his beloved I loved them and I understood his choosing to go alone. I said a prayer and held his lifeless hand. As the nurse came back in to undress and clean his body, I removed his glasses, unclasped his watch, and smoothed his hair. I gathered the pictures surrounding him.

Five minutes later, I was outside in the shockingly warm night air with a Patient Belonging Bag filled with the items he loved and wanted close to him as he left this world. The stars were shining, and I was sobbing. I will never get used to a soul being there one minute and not the next.

Somehow, though, I was certain he was fine wherever his soul was now.

I made a mental note to reread Rushdie, and I yelled into the northern night sky: “Don’t you die, too!”


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