It is April 25th, 3:20am, and suddenly I am wide awake. I have been sound asleep for the first time in days, but something is waking me up out of my sleeping pill stupor. I still have the sound-deafening headphones on to block out the barking dog across the way. And yet, I have heard Michael calling me and I am wide awake. I find myself almost running out to the living room where Michael’s hospital bed is located.
He’s struggling for breath and he cannot talk. I can see that he couldn’t have called me, but he did “call” me at another level, and I am here. There’s a deep rattling in his chest and it is terrifying. He’s gasping for air. I run to the other room to get the oxygen machine that we haven’t needed until now. Luckily it’s all hooked up and all I have to do is fit the tubing into his nose and turn it on.
But there’s no relief. The rattling and gasping and struggling for breath continues. I think he is dying but I can’t stop to think too hard. I begin to do emergency energy work to make it easier for his spirit to leave his body. I’m opening his crown chakra, his throat, and his heart. But I go back to the crown again because that is where my hands are pulled. His spirit needs to fly out of his crown.
Now I’m crying and my tears are falling on his bald head. “I love you so much, I love you so much,” I say over and over. I know this is it. I know he is going now. He gasps out, ” …love…you…,” his eyes roll up to the top of his head and now only the whites are visible. There is one last shudder and his eyes slowly roll down again. He is gone.
I am completely stunned and I cry for a moment, but then I sit on the couch. A sudden stillness comes over me and I am drawn into deep meditation. Eventually I call Hospice and they send a nurse over to declare that Michael is dead.
Michael wanted his body to be left undisturbed for 24 hours after death and of course I honor his wishes. I touch his forehead and already it’s getting colder. It doesn’t feel like living flesh.
I sit quietly until my brother and his wife awaken to go home to Colorado. They offer to stay but I tell them it’s fine for them to leave. I need to be alone. Finally, I call my friends Bob and Merrilee to come sit with me. It’s been five or six hours since his death now, and I realize I’m in shock. My friends arrive, and some time goes by. They tell me I’ve spoken with my sons, and with Michael’s son, that I’ve told them that Michael is dead. They tell me I’ve taken lots of homeopathic flower essences and that I don’t need any more of them right now. I don’t remember any of this! I’ve never felt like this before. I really am in shock.
Then I call Kathy to come over. When Kathy arrives she immediately takes charge. She asks Bob and Merrilee to get some food for me and then comes and sits next to me on the couch. I don’t feel like eating but I’m told to eat anyway, to drink water. After a time of sitting she says, “We have to do something with his body.”
“OK,” I say, “but what?”
“I don’t know … but something.”
She sits awhile longer. Bob and Merrilee return after getting me more food. Once I’m fed, I’m finally exhausted and I think I can sleep for awhile. They see that I’m taken care of and they leave. Soon Kathy also leaves to “get supplies.” I lie down, so tired that I literally feel numb all over. But I cannot sleep and I do not sleep. I lie in bed trying to meditate, trying to remember talking to the kids, trying to realize that Michael’s dead body is lying in our living room. Nothing feels quite real.
Michael’s been dead for almost 12 hours when I hear the door open and Kathy is back, her arms loaded with “supplies.”. There’s a beautiful red silk sari from India and two bolts of silky material from the fabric store, one olive green, one a light cream color. She’s also brought a special soap. She says, “We are going to bathe him and wrap him.”
I really can’t think very well but I say “ok” and Kathy begins to fill a tub with water. “What are we doing?” I ask.
“We’re bathing him first. Do you have any essential oils?”
Of course we have many essential oils but I immediately know that he should be bathed in frankincense. It’s one of his favorite scents, maybe his only favorite scent, and I go to get it from the shelf in the treatment room we have in our basement.
We start the process by stripping off the pajamas he is wearing. Now Michael’s body lies naked and vulnerable on the hospital bed. It’s him, but it’s not him, and I don’t feel embarrassed that Kathy is seeing his body like this.
“OK,” Kathy says, “First we have to plug his anus up so that it doesn’t leak out while we bathe him.” I watch as she deftly and efficiently stuffs cotton into his butt. There’s nothing remotely wrong with this which amazes me a bit. I mean, another woman is putting a plug of cotton in my husband’s anus. But nothing seems out of line now, nothing seems too odd.
We get some warm water and the special soap that Kathy has brought with her. I add the frankincense to the water and we begin to wipe him down very gently with washcloths and lovely scented water. Since he is lying on his back, of course we begin with the front of his body. It’s stiff and cold, and I mean really cold, and I find it odd that it’s already so dead feeling. But then I realize that this is exactly how it should be.
Kathy begins to wash his genitals. His testicles have been enlarged for almost 2 years now, and his penis has gradually shrunken into itself until it almost disappears. As we move the testicles aside I see that his skin has been breaking down in the area between his testicles and his legs and it makes me sad. I didn’t know about this, I didn’t help him with this, and then I realize that he probably didn’t know about it either. We gently wipe away the dead skin and I see the raw skin beneath it.
Now it’s time to roll him over but first the water must be emptied. It’s dirty and we need clean water. Kathy has read that the water shouldn’t go down the drain but should be emptied onto the ground. She goes outside to our front garden and dumps the water not realizing that the bar of lavender soap is also being dumped on the lawn. She comes back in and we watch as a crow finds the bar of soap, pecks at it a bit, then picks it up and flies away with his new prize. I’m wondering what this metaphor signifies but I don’t take the time to examine it now.
Regardless, Kathy gets some fresh warm water and we turn Michael’s body onto its side. As we do, there is a gush of black liquid that pours out of his mouth and nose. It is really black! And it has chunks of black material in it and it is horrfiying. Part of my mind is wondering what on earth it is, while the other part is trying not to freak out over the awfulness of it all. The larger part of me realizes that death is not pretty, that this is part of bathing the dead, part of bathing Michael’s body, and thankfully, I am able to continue to do this strange and sacred work of laying out the body.
We are both taken aback, of course, but Kathy, being a midwife of longstanding, just gathers up the sheet, the mattress pad, and the pillow out from under him, and I take them out to the garbage. When I return, she has plugged up his nose and mouth with more cotton. It’s kind of odd looking, but completely necessary. I can already see more of the black liquid collecting on the edges of the cotton in his nose.
As we turn him, I notice a bed sore on his shoulder that I hadn’t seen before. And again, I realize that I don’t think Michael knew about this sore either. There were just too many things going wrong with his body – a sore on his shoulder was almost nothing.
We efficiently wipe down his back and his feet and dry him off. Or dry his body off. It’s a weird juxtaposition. It’s Michael’s body, but it certainly isn’t Michael. It’s a little hard to remember this. Once his body is cleaned we begin to work the red silk sari under him so that it covers the entire bed and hangs down on the sides.
“What now?” I say. We take a little break which is good. This is pretty intense work we are doing and I realize we are midwifing death. “Deathing,” I think to myself, “We are engaged in deathing.”
Then we’re back at it. Kathy clearly has a vision here and so now it’s time to get the cream-colored silk under and around him. It’s hard work moving a dead body that has been beset by rigor mortis. It had been lying at a weird and uncomfortable looking angle and though Michael certainly can’t feel this discomfort, we feel it, and we move him to a more natural position. We manage and soon there is a full body wrap of this lovely creamy material around him. Already, I can see where we’re headed and it’s beautiful.
Now it’s time for the olive green silky cloth and we wrap it under him, around his shoulders, and begin to make a robe-like thing of it. Kathy carefully folds the fabric as if it is some special garment, for that is exactly what it is. We both notice that Michael’s head looks uncomfortable since the pillow got taken away. I find an old pillow and wrap it in the same green material and slip it under his head. He looks much better now. Regal, even. Comfortable and regal.
Kathy takes the cotton out of his mouth and nose and gently washes off the remaining black liquid from that area. Now I realize it’s time to build an altar! Michael and I have built many altars over the years to mark important moments, and God knows, this is one of the most important.
We need to represent the four directions. In Western mystical tradition, East is for Air, South is for Fire, West is for Water, and North is for Earth. We go outside to find some representatives for the elements. The Coffee Bean tree gives us some unusual brownish red rattling pods to use, and I grab a black stone and a piece of rose quartz for love. Along with a green candle, we’ve now got our earth element.
Fire is easy. I’ve got a red ceramic bowl made by Michael’s granddaughter and I put a heart-shaped red candle holder in it. It’s perfect for this. For Air I have feathers, beautiful feathers that Michael and I have collected on many of our hikes in various locations. I grab the eagle feather and the owl feather. I fill a shimmering blue glass vase with water and daffodils for the Water element, and I get more candles. This altar needs to shine!
I begin lighting the candles for the sacred circle, always going clockwise, starting in the East with the color yellow, the dawning sunlight, the archangel, Raphael. South is red for fire and Spirit and Archangel Michael, West is blue for water and emotions and Archangel Gabriel, and North is green for earth and Archangel Uriel. I light a white lotus candle in the center.
Now it becomes clear that it’s time to say a few words, words of prayer and peaceful passage, words of gratitude. I am crying wholeheartedly as I do this. I am so grateful to have had this person in my life, this beautiful man, this Michael. Such a blessing. I already miss him so much. I cry and pray.
Kathy is doing her own thing with prayers and it’s clear we both feel the holiness of this moment. We both recognize that we are in the midst of the Sacred, and now is a time for kneeling at the feet of God in whatever way we can.
We take some pictures. We’ve been at this for hours now and I want to remember this forever. I know we have just done something important and something magical. We have taken some kind of raw intuitive guidance from the deepest mystery. I feel hushed and stilled by the beauty of this moment. I am filled with awe at the supreme honor of laying out this body for its final end.
Now at last we blow out the candles and we sit quietly for awhile. Kathy asks me if I want her to spend the night and I say no. I really want to be alone. Once she leaves I sit beside Michael’s body and meditate once again. There is peace and a profound sense of goodness here, and I sink into it as deeply as I can. I feel surrounded by love.
Finally, I rise and kiss Michael’s cold forehead goodnight before going to sleep. “Goodnight, Honey,” I say just as I have said so many times in these past 35 years. Suddenly I realize this is the last night that I will touch him and I cry again and then go to bed.
The Cremation Society will come at 9am the next morning to take his body away but I know that the real work has already been done. Michael’s body has been cleansed and wrapped and laid out, his spirit has been honored as deeply as humanly possible, and the Great Powers have been called upon on his behalf. All is well now. All is truly well.