My Jessie Journal:: Hi, Sweet Pea! It’s Daddy. Tomorrow is your Heaven Day=(((. So I decided to share that section from your book today as tomorrow we will be together as a family holding on to memories and looking towards the horizon longing to be a family of five again.
“Erik! Erik! I can’t wake Jessie. Something’s wrong.”
It was 4:30 a.m. on January 5, 2012. I was upstairs sleeping in Jessie’s bed and Stacey had been downstairs with Jessie. Normally, they slept in our room, but Jessie had fallen asleep on the couch that day while Nana was babysitting and Stacey didn’t have the heart to wake her to move her.
January 4th had been a difficult day for Jessie. She’d had a terrible headache that wouldn’t abate and was on morphine every three hours. She slept a lot that day, and we were supposed to take her in for a CT scan the following morning to figure out where the pressure was coming from. Stacey slept on the other end of the L-shaped couch, waking Jessie every three hours for her medicine. Jessie vomited up the medicine once that night and kept apologizing for vomiting . . . that broke Stacey’s heart.
“Honey, it’s not your fault,” she said. “Please don’t worry about it.”
They both fell back asleep, but when it was time to administer the next dose of morphine, Stacey couldn’t get Jessie to respond. Her body was rather limp and she wasn’t very conscious.
I flew down the stairs and into the family room, where I immediately heard the sound: rattling. Her breathing was labored in a way that told me that this could be it. As a pastor, I have sat with many families in the last hours and this sound was common to all of them. My heart sank as I stared at my little girl.
“Jess? Jessie, can you hear me? We have medicine for you, but we need you to wake up. Can you hear me? Please open your eyes, Jess.”
There was little response other than the terrible noise of her struggle to breathe. The words caught in my throat. “Stace, this is bad. This could be it.”
“But this isn’t right . . .”
We hadn’t had our warning. We were supposed to know when the end was coming so we could be more prepared than this. I was terrified and confused and just wanted my daughter to breathe normally.
Please, God, don’t let her suffer.
Stacey and I discussed calling 911, but decided against it because we didn’t want people who’d never met her to come in and take over. I called the hospice team and they had Gay Walker call me right back. Gay was the woman I had met with when she first came in for an interview at my office.
“What’s going on? What are her symptoms?” Gay asked.
“She’s not really responding to us. We can’t get her to open her eyes much. Her breathing is labored,” I said. “It sounds terrible.”
“Is she lying on her back?”
“Okay, I want you to roll her over to her side. That’s her epiglottis causing the sound you’re hearing, and it’ll get better if she’s on her side. Then I want you to get her oxygen machine and get that started right away.”
Getting her onto her side did help somewhat, but I couldn’t get the oxygen machine to work. Stupid machine! Stacey was on the phone trying to get information from the nurses as I grew ever more frustrated with the oxygen machine. Then I called Gay back.
“I’m heading out the door now, so I’ll be with you as soon as I can. It will take me about 40 minutes to get there. But, Mr. Rees, it sounds like Jessie might go to heaven today. This is how it goes. You might want to call the people you want to be around her.”
I told Stacey and the two of us broke down. It was the worst news I could imagine telling our family, but we had to do it. I quickly called Stacey’s parents, Kimmy and T, and Tanta and Bob.
“Something happened to Jessie in the middle of the night and she’s not responding,” I said. “The hospice team is on its way and they’re suggesting we gather our family.”
Kimmy and T packed their bags and headed straight for the airport. Nana and Papa and Tanta and Bob got into their cars.
Gay arrived first and headed straight in to examine Jessie, picking her up to a sitting position. Jessie’s head wobbled involuntarily.
“Jessie, it’s your nurse, Gay, and I’m going to give you some morphine to help you feel better.”
As it turned out, Gay was exactly who we needed at that moment. She changed the atmosphere from panic to order, reminding us of all the things that still made sense.
“Let’s put on some of Jessie’s favorite music,” she said, and we did. “She can hear you; go ahead and talk to her.”
We held her hands and said, “Hey, honey. We love you. We’re here.”
With her eyes just half-open, she mumbled, “Love you.”
The words weren’t articulated, but they were clear. They were the last words Jessie would ever speak.
Another nurse named Lisa arrived. Jessie had been having mild seizures, so the nurses gave her medications meant to calm her body down. At about 7:00, I said, “We have to wake the kids. What should we tell them?”
“Kids do better with reality than imagination,” Gay suggested. She gave us her thoughts about what to say and we ended up following them. Stacey and I headed to Shaya’s room first. I knelt down next to the bed and Stacey sat at the foot of the bed. It wasn’t normal for both of us to come in to wake her like this, which had to be the first sign for her that something was going on.
“Honey, something happened last night to Jess. There are nurses here and Jessie is okay—she isn’t in any pain—but she has oxygen going into her nose and she’s on pain medications. They think she might go to heaven today.”
Shaya started crying. Stacey held on to her.
“You can come down and see Jessie now if you want, or you can stay here and wait a little while. Are you okay?”
She was not okay. She just kept crying. We left to check on Jessie, and in retrospect, we probably should have stayed with Shaya a little longer. Decision-making isn’t at its finest when you’re in shock. All I could think about was Jessie’s seizures and whether or not they’d stopped. We got back downstairs and found her in the middle of another seizure.
“Erik, what’s happening?” Stacey asked.
I lit into one of the nurses. “Make this stop now. I was told she wasn’t going to suffer!”
They administered more and more medication until finally, Jessie’s body quieted down. This was what palliative care was all about. Here we were, all too soon, arriving at the moment doctors had warned me about from the very start.
We went back upstairs to wake JT, and Shaya joined us in his room. Just as we’d tried so hard to mask our emotions all along to avoid scaring the kids, now it was Shaya who worked so hard to pull herself together for the sake of her brother. The three of us surrounded him as we told him the same things we’d told her. He cried.
Shaya put her hands on his shoulders and looked him right in the eyes and said, “I love you, JT, and we’re going to be okay.”
She comforted him in ways that we couldn’t. When they finally came to see Jessie, I could see how uncomfortable JT was. They both told Jessie that they loved her, and then JT stood around awkwardly. He said, “I wonder if there are any cartoons on,” and we told him to go ahead and check. Shaya went with him, watching over her little brother. I wondered if we had done the right thing by not preparing them for this moment. There are things that can be answered only in hindsight.
Stacey never again moved from Jessie’s side. She just sat and held her hand. When Nana and Papa, Tanta and Bob came, they each sat with Jessie, stroking her hair and talking to her. I paced. I sent out a post on Facebook asking people to pray for Jessie’s comfort.
“Why don’t we let Mr. Moe come in and sniff her?” Gay suggested. We did, and then we put him and our other dogs in our office to lessen the confusion. I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I wasn’t sure how I wanted things to go that day. Would it be right if everyone was in the room with Jessie when she took her last breath? Should it be just Stacey and me?
Kimmy and T’s flight was delayed; they had to sit on the tarmac for 15 minutes before they could disembark. When they arrived in the terminal, they gave up on waiting for their luggage and just left without anything, figuring they could come back for it later. It was more important to get to us.
By 11 a.m., I saw that Jessie’s hands and feet were turning light blue. I knew that the body changes colors from the limbs inward toward the core as the blood stops circulating. From the look on Gay’s face, I realized that she had seen it, too. Jessie was getting ready to join Jesus. I kept checking my watch and waiting for the door to open. We were in a race against time now, and I knew how much it would hurt Kimmy in particular if she didn’t get to see Jessie before she passed. We knew their plane had touched down because they’d called then; all we could say was, “Get here.” Now we couldn’t get through.
So we talked to Jessie. “Hang in there, Jess, Kimmy and T are on their way to see you right now. They’ll be here any minute. They can’t wait to see you. They love you so much, Jess.”
Jessie’s breaths were slower now, with long pauses. I brokenly prayed, “God, I surrender Jessie to your loving hands. She is your daughter. Thank you for allowing me to be her daddy. Please save her from pain and help us walk each day with her in our hearts.”
At 11:12, Jessie was in Stacey’s arms and her hands were blue. She took a breath, and then . . . silence. I looked as the nurses checked her pulse and blood pressure. Then, as more of a statement than a question, I said, “She’s gone.”
“Yes,” Gay said softly. “Jessie is no longer with us.”
The oxygen machine was turned off. There was nothing but silence and the sound of crying reverberating through the house.
At 11:20, the front door flew open. Kimmy came rushing around the corner and looked right at me. Did I make it? her eyes seemed to ask.
I shook my head.
The sound of her wailing pierced my heart as she ran to Jessie and collapsed by her side.
For the next half an hour, all we did was cry. Then Gay said, “There’s no timetable for this, but here’s what has to happen next: We’ll need to call the mortuary to have Jessie picked up. I’d love to have your permission to get her changed into some cleaner clothes.”
Dying is not a neat or sterile process. All the women—Stacey, Kimmy, Tanta, and Nana—helped to get Jessie dressed. They kept her draped in a sheet to preserve her dignity while they did it. I can’t imagine what that experience was like for them, but it was somehow soothing to me to know that the most significant women in her life were helping Jessie with such compassion one last time.
Tim had gone upstairs to be with Shaya and JT, and he helped them come down to be with Jessie before she would be taken away. JT just stood and stared at her and cried.
“It’s okay, buddy,” I told him. “She’s cancer-free now. She’s in heaven and she’s all healed.”
It is what I believed, but that didn’t make it easier for either one of us. Eventually I pulled Stacey aside and asked, “How long do you want her to be in the house?” It was no longer our daughter, only our daughter’s body. We agreed that it was time to call the mortuary.
Liz, the woman from our church who handled all the memorial services, came over to talk to us, and at about 1:00, the men from the morgue arrived. “We’re so sorry for your loss, Mr. and Mrs. Rees,” they told us. They had a gurney with them, and signaled to it. “Is it okay?”
At that point, I cleared out the room aside from Stacey and me because I just couldn’t stand the thought of people watching Jessie’s body being placed on and carried out on a gurney. Jessie was wrapped a quilt made for her by her teammates. The men got her onto the gurney and we kissed her forehead.
“Would you like us to cover her face with the sheet?” one of the morticians asked.
“Please, no,” I said.
I asked them to pull up the van as close to the garage as they could, again to lessen the spectacle of carrying her out. We followed behind them out through the garage, and as we reached the garage door, I could see everyone watching and crying from the windows. I said, “You can cover her face now.”
The morticians drove away and I just sat down where I was in the driveway and cried. People came out and touched my shoulder and tried to bring me back inside, but I refused. “I just want to be alone; thank you,” I said. I sat there for quite some time just reliving everything in my mind, wondering what I could have done better. You question everything when there are no answers.
Did I do all right? I didn’t know if I was everything she needed in those last moments, but she was everything I needed.
When I did get back inside, there were conversations happening all around me.
She was so strong at Christmas.
How could this happen so soon?
When I could see through the tears again, I consulted Stacey about what to say and then sat down on the computer chair where Jessie had so often sat on my lap and composed the message I had long dreaded writing:
We have prayed and prayed and prayed for sweet Jessie to be healed here on earth but God’s plan was to use heaven for healing. Jessie earned her wings today and is with Jesus now!!! No pain . . . complete vision . . . spreading joy.
Please pray for our family as we walk out of the valley of death and towards the mountain top. We will let everyone know of her celebration service as arrangements are made. Please join us in carrying on her joyful spirit and Never Ever Give Up attitude.
Erik, Stacey, Shaya, and JT