MY LAST WEEK WITH JOHNNYE
July 14, 2014
I had never spent much time in a hospital until last week, when I had the honor of being with my aunt Johnnye during the last six days of her life. Growing up, I spent at least one week every summer with my family at the duplex on Wrightsville Beach that Johnnye shared with her husband Gene and her mother, my Grandma Margaret. Since becoming a touring songwriter, I’ve managed to find gigs in the area to add a few extra visits per year. I would usually sleep over in Grandma’s guest room, and Johnnye would come over to visit throughout the day (especially if I was playing music - she could hear it through the walls and would come poke her head in the back door with a big smile on her face. “Well, I thought I heard something…” she would say, as she shuffled in wearing her house coat and slippers).
We would watch the bay from the rocking chairs on the porch, do crossword puzzles and go out to dinner. I often joked that visiting with them made me feel like I was practicing for retirement. One time when I was just starting to play music professionally, they asked me at dinner if I had all the tools I needed to begin my career. I told them that I felt pretty well set, although I was saving up to buy a good live microphone. They asked a few more questions and conversation soon turned to other topics (I remember that this took place the night before my first ever on-air radio interview, and I was quite nervous). At the end of the week, they gave me a check for $300 from their joint account. The memo line read “microphone.” The next day I bought a Beta 87a and I still use it at *every show.
While visiting with family at a lake in North Carolina last week, we got a call from Johnnye’s caretaker that she had been admitted to the hospital with a cough. Because of her age and medical history, they decided to transfer her to Duke where she had been treated for lung cancer last year. On Thursday, the day before July 4th, my dad and I drove over to Raleigh to visit her. When we walked in she was sitting in the reclining chair near the window with a small oxygen sniffer under her nose. She was in a great mood, excited to see us, just as wide eyed and bright as ever. She marveled at the commotion of the ambulance ride from Wilmington to Raleigh, balked about the taste of grape juice with potassium in it and happily ate a chocolate bar. She never complained about any pain. I told her about my recent trips to Japan and Europe and she asked questions about the rest of the family and my life in Austin. We chatted about when I would be back to perform in the area, and about the possibility of her visiting her sister in Arizona later in the year. We talked for over three hours. When we left it was not because she was tired, but because we had to drive over an hour back to the lake and needed to get home for dinner. Dad and I left having no idea that it would be our last normal visit with her.
Within a few days her condition had worsened drastically. By the time we got back to visit again on Saturday she was on full oxygen support and mostly unconscious. I kept my guitar in her room and would occasionally sing songs she liked, or play softly in the background. Once my aunt Ella arrived, she would join me singing. We put together a medley of 50’s and 60’s doo-wop songs all using the same chord progression (eventually we were stringing together 11 or 12 at a time). On Monday, the day that they moved Johnnye in palliative care, Ella asked if I knew Unchained Melody. I hadn’t sung it before but, as luck would have it, the chords worked with the progression we were using so we started singing. When it got to the high part (the falsetto “I neeeeeeed your looooooove!”) Johnnye, who had been unconscious all day, suddenly lifted her head and her eyes popped open wide. I smiled at her and said, “Well, that got your attention, didn’t it?”
She laughed a little and said, “Yeah, I guess it did.” She then told me that she had been resting and listening to us sing and really enjoyed it. After that she fell asleep and I never heard her speak again.
Throughout the week I got to know my family members in a different light. We sat with Johnnye around the clock, sometimes all together and sometimes in shifts. We had late night conversations about existentialism, the nature of sight, the meaning of life, the process of death. Early in the week the hospital staff had been certain that Johnnye was in her final hours, but throughout the week her vital signs stabilized and the nurses swore off making predictions. One of them said “Johnnye has humbled me.”
My family sent me to Oklahoma on Friday, determined that Johnnye would have wanted me to keep my commitment to play the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. My dad helped me wash my clothes at a laundromat near the hospital and dropped me off at the airport early in the morning. It felt strange to be back in the world of the living, and unnatural to be in the middle of a bustling music festival at which I was performing and giving interviews and surrounded by peers with whom I usually love to visit and play music. I awoke on Saturday to a message from my dad that Johnnye had passed away in her sleep overnight. I had two shows to play in the next three hours, and did my best to keep from crying while keeping her in my heart throughout.
I feel like I understand something now that I didn’t last week. I had heard of hospice, and knew of friends who had seen their loved ones through at the end of their lives, but I had never understood the depth and gravity of navigating that situation. I never knew what it was like to spend night after night on a reclining chair next to a hospital bed, to develop a relationship with a nursing staff, to nervously count the seconds after a gasping breath wondering if there would be another. It felt intimate and somehow sacred to be present for someone during this transitional time. I’m grateful that I was able to spend this time with Johnnye, her care givers, and our family members. I’m grateful for the gifts she gave us that week. Her mind, which had been fuzzied over the past few years by dementia and more recently by the passing of her husband, pulled back into sharper focus. She told stories we hadn’t heard before and shared memories that we hadn’t heard her access recently.
My favorite conversation came on the last day that we spoke. I was sitting by her bed holding her hand while she mused about how suddenly her medical condition had declined. She got a far-off look in her eye and said, “And you know, it’s been so long since I’ve climbed a tree.” Having been known to pull the car over while on tour to climb a particularly inviting tree, I smiled and told her that I also love to do that. She sighed with a smile and said, “It feels so wonderful, when you get up in a good tree…”
Life is a gift.
Let’s enjoy it together. Let’s remember to call our loved ones and tell them what they mean to us and for heaven’s sakes, let’s remember to climb trees!
With love and light and joy and gratitude,
*quick thanks to all the venues who have shipped this mic back to me when I’ve accidentally left it behind…