Li'l Grieving Song
What no one tells you about dying at home is that once you’ve taken that last rattling breath, once your skeletal body limps and your eyes shut, your mouth falls open—like a fish, I said, staring over my stepfather’s body. When no one reacted, I said it again and then a third time. His mouth is open like a fish. Jeff was a fisherman, so I said, I think he’d like that, and laughed a little to myself but Jeff’s mother, Dolores, Jeff’s sister, Sheri, and even my mother, whose brain was so like my own, didn’t join me in laughing. What no one tells you about dying at home is that once you’ve died, someone has to call a service to come and pick up your dead body. And that takes time. Hours, in fact.
I’m not sure any of us had thought that through when hospice was finally called. When I raced across Chicago in the middle of the workday to be at Mom and Jeff’s apartment to accept the hospital bed—signing for it like I knew what I was doing, like I’d helped someone die before—when we busied ourselves with setting Jeff up comfortably, in front of the balcony and in view of the city he loved so much, when we took shifts watching him overnight, sleeping on the couch beside him in 15-minute intervals—check to see he’s still breathing, confirm his breathing tube is still correctly positioned and he hasn’t accidentally pulled it off, ask him, if he’s awake, if he needs another shot of painkillers—during all of that, I don’t think any of us really thought about what would happen after he died.
Tina did though, the building doorwoman.
“This the hospice bed?” she asked as the delivery people helped me situate it in the elevator.
“Yep,” I said, like it was a Hello Fresh box.
“So, once he goes up the elevator, the next time he comes down…” She sniffed, eyes glazing. Tina had attached herself to my family’s struggles in a way that bothered me. But she had truly gone out of her way to help us arrange things. Bent the rules of the high-rise building for us multiple times, so I couldn’t begrudge her too much.
In an hour or so, Jeff would take the last elevator ride of his life. When he came back down, he’d be a dead body. That was the only time I really considered his dead body before it was in front of me, and even in that moment, I was too numb to appreciate it. Simply thanked Tina for her help and pushed the 27-button hard, as if that would make the elevator doors close faster.
He was dying, we all had accepted that. He won’t last the week, I had emailed my boss. I assigned work and made arrangements with my team as if preparing for a vacation. I’ll be out of the office for a few days. Here’s what needs to be done in that time. Here are the links. But of course, if you really need something, I’ll be around. I’ll just be… I’m not sure what I thought I would be doing. This was my first go-around with death.
Jeff had been sick for less than six months. Hospitalized in August. Pancreatic cancer diagnosis in December. They’d opened him up for some surgery to get a better look, to explain his yellowing skin, still trying to figure out what was wrong. He was full of cancer. Everywhere, the doctor had said. I pictured it like mold on cheese. Green and gray and fuzzy to the touch. Then they sewed him back up. That was the part that always confused me. They hadn’t even tried to scrape any of it off.
In mid-January we made the decision. Let him finally come home. Die somewhere comfortable.
And he had. We’d done it. Seen him through to the end the best we could. Jeff was dead and the four of us—Dolores, Sheri, Mom, and I—cried and hugged and did all the things you’d expect. But it only took about 20 minutes.
It would be a couple of hours, the dead body company had said, before they could come get him. Mom had changed Jeff’s clothes before the rigor mortis had set in. She didn’t want him going to the crematorium in a dirty shirt.
After my fish mouth comment, which had not gone over well, I decided to close Jeff’s mouth. I wish I hadn’t. You hear about rigor mortis but…Jeff’s jaw was hardened like a mannequin’s. I pushed harder, feeling the resistance, wondering if I could actually break his jaw if I pushed too hard—would it shatter like glass? Jump out of place? His skin was cold and rubbery, like a raw chicken. He was growing grayer as time passed. Less and less like the man I knew.
I withdrew my hand quickly. It had only been a few seconds, but once I touched him, once I viscerally understood that this was a dead body in the living room, I started to panic. Dolores, Sheri, and Mom didn’t seem bothered. At various points, they all stroked his hair or kissed his forehead. I crawled to the corner of the couch, positioning myself as far away from it as I could.
The thing no one tells you about waiting for the dead body company to arrive is that you have to find a way to fill that time. And it’s not the same as the time that comes after the body is taken away—that’s normal grief time. Mom and I would crawl into her and Jeff’s bed and look at photos and go through his phone and write his obituary and tell stories and share memories and cry and all of that regular stuff. But that couldn’t quite happen yet. Not when Jeff, or at least a version of Jeff, was still in the room.
You can’t turn on the TV. You can’t play music. You can’t clean or cook or shower or do anything that might make it seem like you’re going about the day as usual. At a certain point, you get tired of crying. It feels weird to talk too loudly, but whispering makes it seem like you’re pretending the dead person is still alive and asleep.
Two nights prior had been my first night shift watching over Jeff. Unlike any other times I’d stayed alone with Jeff at the hospital, this time, if anything happened, there was no nurse to call. Mom, Dolores, and Sheri had each had a home hospice night shift and were exhausted. It was my turn to sleep in 15-minute intervals. My turn to administer the painkillers into his thigh every couple of hours (because his thigh was the only place we could scrounge a pinchful of fat large enough to shove a needle into). My turn to talk him down from bouts of delirium. Comfort him in brief moments of lucidity. I was twenty-eight years old. I’d never administered a shot. I’d never been in charge of a dying man.
Sometime around 1am, I broke. In the silence of the living room my fear got too loud. I turned on Parks & Recreation. Dimmed the brightness of the TV and kept the volume low enough that it wouldn’t wake Jeff.
Parks & Rec had been ours—mine, Jeff’s, and Mom’s. The year I lived with them after moving back to Chicago we watched it together. Back then, Jeff’s body shook with laughter instead of chills. Sometimes, my gaze would fall away from the TV, and I would take in Jeff’s laughter and snorts and the times he would have to tear off his glasses and wipe at the corners of his eyes, his grin scrunching up the rest of his face.
Throughout my night shift, Parks & Rec played. Episode after episode blurring my 15-minute check-ins, until around 4am, I heard a wheezing sound. I leapt up from the couch and hurried to Jeff’s side to find his face turned away from me, eyes fixed on the TV, his mouth crooked upwards.
“Is this okay?” I whispered. “I hope it didn’t wake you.”
He struggled to speak at this point, so he nodded, working up the energy to breathe out two words. “Love it.”
Jeff and I had already had our official goodbye a few days prior. We’d said the important words then, and I was grateful for it. It released me from the rotten anxiety of wondering if every conversation would be our last. It meant my actual final words to Jeff didn’t have to be profound. It could be as stupid as they ended up being: me rambling on about a sitcom as the sun rose over our frigid city. Turns out, his final words to me had been about a sitcom, too, though taken out of that context, it was still Love. The best final verb.
When my mom awoke that morning, she found Jeff attentive, watching the TV with a small smile on his face. She burst into tears, praising me for my “brilliant” idea. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d done it for myself, not for Jeff. From that point on, we kept Parks & Rec running as much as possible.
The TV was blank now, the four of us sitting in silence on the couch.
“I’m so glad that, even at the very end, he was still able to smile,” Mom said, staring at Jeff’s body. “It was such a good idea to have Parks & Rec on.” Dolores and Sheri agreed.
“Now he’s up there with Li’l Sebastian,” I said, more to myself than to this silent corpse-filled room, surprised at the comfort I felt at recalling the most important Parks & Rec tragedy: the death of the town’s beloved mini horse, Li’l Sebastian.
But the silence was broken by the sound of Mom giggling, the kind of slap-happy sleep-deprived laughter that comes out of nowhere and can’t be controlled. The kind of laughter that accompanies moments when the entire world feels off-kilter and fake. Infectious giggles that swept me up, too.
We laughed at the absurdity of Jeff being gone. At the image of him meeting a TV show mini horse in some version of heaven, and excitedly freaking out. It was stupid and strange, but it was us and it was love and it was what we had left.
So when Mom barely got out, “Maybe he’d want us to sing the ‘Bye, Bye Lil’ Sebastian’ song,” through her laughter, there was no question what I was going to do.
I sang about “horsey heaven.” Mom joined in on “angel's wings.” Together, we sang about the death of a fictional mini horse.
The thing no one tells you about dying at home is that your loved ones have to sit with your body for hours. It’s a terrible, horrible experience.
What do you do during those hours?
Maybe, you reach for anything that can still make you smile. Maybe, you sing “Bye bye, Li’l Sebastian” because grieving songs don’t have to be hymns. They don’t even have to be real. They just have to be sung.