My sister-in-law Rebekah was an avid cyclist. When she didn’t arrive home from a ride, her husband David tracked her to the nearest trauma center, where she had been rushed into surgery. She had fallen and sustained a traumatic brain injury. She was found unconscious, on the side of the road. Their two sons caught flights home from college. They gathered with David at her bedside. For a day, she hovered between life and death. Then her intracranial pressure increased, and she died a few days later.
Rebekah and I married two brothers and over time, the many layers of my sister-in-law revealed themselves. She was a gifted midwife, a role-model educator, a terrific chef, a runner, passionate about Judaism, a tireless advocate for equality in health care. She was a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend. Our paths overlapped and diverged, connected and reconnected, as we moved from our thirties into middle age. Nearly twenty years after we met, when our husbands’ father Arnold was dying, I discovered another layer of Rebekah.
Arnold was fading. He was in the hospital for a week, and in home hospice care for an additional two weeks. At first, he requested clean pajamas. He asked his nurse for a shave. He initiated conversations. He wanted me to keep him oriented to time. He was living as he was dying.
Although our wonderful hospice nurse prepared us for what was around the corner, Arnold’s final phase took us by the throat. He lost interest in food, then in ice chips, then in sips of water. He stopped speaking. His breathing rattled. He needed meds to rest comfortably, then more meds, then much more.
My husband and I lived near Arnold, so we were with him through the progression. As he entered the home-hospice-care phase, David and Rebekah arrived from the other side the country. Together, they went into Arnold’s bedroom. They stayed a long time, bonded in loss and in love. Lying in bed, Arnold turned toward their voices, feeling their presence.
Rebekah was a fine athlete, and she moved with a supple grace familiar to me. But this time I saw something different. As she crossed the threshold into Arnold’s bedroom, her movements changed almost imperceptibly. She slowed her pace slightly, her body took on a subtle fluidity, responding to invisible atmospheric currents. She placed her hand on Arnold’s arm and spoke a few quiet words. Without understanding how or why, everyone breathed easier.
Before Rebekah arrived, even as we accepted Arnold’s death, we all wanted to fight against it. But Rebekah wasn’t fighting. From a place too deep for words, she understood the essence of Arnold’s experience and in an unconscious instant, she entered his world. Somehow, she opened herself, an unspoken invitation to Arnold’s physical being to communicate directly with her physical being, no verbal translation necessary. At one point, I asked how she, a midwife, an expert in labor and delivery, knew with such completeness how to help Arnold find his path into death. She smiled gently, shrugged slightly. “This is a lot like when someone gives birth.”
Arnold died in the early hours of the morning. Rebekah saw his skin take on a different hue. She woke the others and brought them to his bedside. Arnold took his final breath with his midwife guiding him into death.
Today, several years after Arnold died, I know that if love had been enough, Rebekah would have stood up after her fall, dusted herself off, climbed back on her bike, and returned to her husband and her sons. I’m thinking of Rebekah’s hand on Arnold’s arm, the calm of her voice, the curious beauty of her movements. If I close my eyes for an instant, I see her on her bicycle, eyes intent and shining, brown curls streaming. In my mind, she slows her pace, and our eyes meet. She smiles at me, then through me, a quiet light reaching for David and their sons. Then she turns and rides into death, gone and extremely here.
1/4/1960 – 11/16/2021
Rest In Peace