Proclaiming the name of the dead

One day this past week, I was sitting at my desk sending an email, when my phone rang. The number that popped up was local and vaguely familiar, so I answered

Hello, this is Lindsey, I said, noticing that I always sound a bit too cheerful when I answer, and wondering if it creates unrealistic expectations.

Hello, Lindsey, this is Sonoma County Paratransit. I am calling in regards to

And then the man said her name. Her full name. Her chosen name, which, with great effort, she had instated as her legal name not so long ago. A name of flowers and spring and rolling green hills. Such an interesting choice for a person for whom “sweetness” was not a top descriptor. I asked her once why she’d chosen that name, and she offered me only a vague answer about Celts and paganism. On that day, we had been walking on an accessible trail near the Valley of the Moon. Unsolicited, she identified all the wildflowers for me. I pushed her wheelchair up the hills, and braced the weight of it on the downward slopes. I was grieved by the knowledge that I would never remember the names of these flowers, but I was more grieved by the fact that this day was a such rarity.

She had supposedly moved from Berkeley to Sonoma County for days like this. And friends from the Bay Area had made overtures about coming to see her, and take her out on such walks, but those visits were fewer and more far between than initially expected. I was the only one who was in town, and I had my own grueling schedule. And Paratransit, which was promised to be her great liberator, required a physical address for pick-up and drop-off, which made going to parks and trails near impossible.

As she often did, she eventually figured out a workaround. But then the buses never came on schedule, and when they arrived, the drivers expected her to be ready right at that moment. For older people with limited mobility, going to the bathroom before a trip is essential, and it takes time – time they would not give her. After a bus driver chastised her in front of other passengers for making him wait, she had a panic attack on the bus, and couldn’t remember where she was supposed to go and for what purpose. At that point, she stopped signing up for rides, though we never bothered to take her off of the list.

The voice continued on the other end of the phone. You are on file as her primary point of contact, and we have been unable to get in touch with her.

No kidding, I thought. Me, too. I have been unable to tell her about the possum in our backyard who keeps stealing our fava beans. I have been unable to ask her if the purple flowers in bloom in my neighborhood are iris or lupin. I have been unable to show her this meme I found that is a bit too grim to share with anyone else.

When I didn’t respond, he prompted further. We are just doing a courtesy wellness check, he announced, as though he was offering some spectacular and profound public service. My eyes went red.

You must be joking, I said. She hasn’t caught a bus for two years, and now you call to do a wellness check? How long do you think she might have been laying in her apartment waiting for this call?

In truth, she had lay in her apartment for hours after she’d died. I had arrived a few nights before, late in the evening. She was shouting that she couldn’t breathe, and her in-home support worker was frightened. The support worker was not a caregiver, but rather, underpaid in-home help afforded to poor people. Years before, I had served in this role for my friend, too. While this in-home support worker, like many others who do this work, was compassionate and committed to helping, they were grossly unqualified for the escalation of need in personal care.

I’ve never seen anyone die before, the worker said, as the two of us stood in the cold night air outside of the apartment. I am afraid I am losing my mind.

I sent them home, with thanks, and assured them that I had seen death. When I was a freshman in college, I saw a man jump off of the roof of the downtown office building where I was an intern.

Is that a bird? I said, getting up from my desk. Then, I looked down to the ground.

I think that man is dead, my officemate said, picking up the phone to call 9-1-1.

In a garbage dump community in Manila, I watched as an impoverished mother presented a three-week-old baby to a visiting nurse. The child had long stopped crying.

The baby won’t last the night, the nurse said to me, after we were back on the street. She had given the mother morphine.

Morphine was what the hospice nurse gave to me. It had taken her hours to arrive. There was only one hospice nurse in the area that did home calls for someone as poor as my friend, and she was the whole way out in Napa when I called her. I met her out on the sidewalk, and led her through the maze of cinder-block, low-income apartments; all of which looked exactly the same. Except for my friend’s – which had a canopy covered with flowers in her little patio area out front.

She can’t breathe, I said. I was crying. She hasn’t been able to breathe for hours.

The nurse stopped me outside of the apartment door. She can breathe, the nurse said, placing her hand on my elbow. If she couldn’t breathe, she would be dead by now. This is end-of-life delirium.

My own breath caught in my throat. At the end of her life, my grandmother had been in prolonged psychosis, and thought the nurses were trying to kill her. I had lay on the chair in the hospital room next to her that night. At some point, she accused me of trying to kill her, too, and for a brief moment, I hid in the bathroom, and wept bitterly.

I would lay on the floor of my friend’s apartment There was only so much the nurse could do. She wanted to give her an anti-psychotic, but was not authorized to give her the anti-nausea med to go with it. And the hospice doctor for poor people was not on call that night. The nurse waited with my friend, while I drove home to get medication I happened to have in my own bathroom cabinet. When I got back, the nurse briefly went outside, so that she wouldn’t see me administering the medication myself. Then she left me with vials and vials of oral morphine.

My friend would cry out anyway. She would call for me. She would demand I come and sit with her, and then she would push me away. The next day, she regained lucid consciousness for a few moments, and I told her that I was making plans for her. I think I told her that I loved her. I was so tired, I don’t remember. She only lasted two more days.

After she died, I waited with her for a few hours before the hospice nurse could come to confirm what I already knew to be true. Then, I waited for hours after that – seven hours to be exact. During that time, I lit candles around her body, and I prayed. And also, I called agency after agency, business after business, proclaiming her death, and receiving their feigned condolences. Sometimes, they asked for proof. I was not always kind in response to such demands. My now-wife came as soon as she could, bearing comfort food and Guinness. She stood by while I opened the door for a large Russian man in a cheap suit and black tennis shoes. He reeked of aftershave and perspiration. He apologized for the delay, but said he was the only one on call for the mortuary that serves poor people.

You get what you pay for, he said in a thick accent. And if you can’t pay… He shrugged, and then got about his work. Difficult, physical work. He asked if I wanted the ring that she was still wearing. I said that I did, but I couldn’t get it off her fingers. He told me to look away.

My wife held me, and hid my face the entire time the man was at work. When I finally looked up, there was just a bag on a gurney. The man handed me the pewter ring with a fake amethyst. I’m sorry, he said. I believed him.

Far more than I believed this man on the other end of the phone, two years later, who claimed that he cared about my friend’s wellness. So many words came to mind. Words of accusation. Words of hurt. Words of judgment. But all of those words are for other people. People at the top of systems. People who do not understand how poor folks must live and die in this wealthy nation. People who do not work the phones at Paratransit.

And so, I only spoke to proclaim the truth.

She’s been dead for two years, I said, looking out the window into the backyard. There were new buds on the branches of the stonefruit tree. How had I not noticed? There would flowers any day.

I’m sorry, he said. It didn’t matter if he meant it.

Do I need to do something to get her name removed from your list? I asked, breathing deeply.

No, no, he said. I can take care of everything. I let the ridiculousness of his words sit in the air, and I thanked him. If nothing else, he had said her name, exactly as she would have wanted it spoken.

3 thoughts on “Proclaiming the name of the dead

  1. I really look forward to reading your posts. I’m so grateful for your sharing and testimony, especially when what you write isn’t easy. I’m honored to call you a colleague and friend.


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