In 1994, Dean was twenty-eight years old, though I could never comprehend that he was over nineteen. Never too old to be told when he needed to brush his teeth or put on a better shirt. My kid. My friend. My darling Deano.
When he died, I was with him. I whispered through my tears, "Go on, honey. Run along. Go home to your real Father. You were only on loan to me anyway, you were never mine. Soar, precious. I'll be along soon enough." And he went--but not before I sensed him standing in a tiny space between the hospital bed and the wall. His eyes were closed. The monitor gave out nothing but a flat line. I leaned to him. "I know they think you can't hear me, honey, but you and I know you have never heard me more clearly, or understood me better. I know you're standing right there, in the little spot at the head of the bed, and I'm all right. So are you. I love you, Deano. Bye for now...but only for now, sweetheart."
Husband Larry, daughter Brooke, and I drove back home later that evening, just as the sun was setting. I leaned back in the passenger seat and watched the stars twinkle on, one at a time it seemed, and I thought Where are you, precious? I thought I knew. I thought I understood about death...but now I wonder if it's only a Hallmark concept designed to sell sympathy cards... Are you really flying among those stars? Are you here? Are you there? Is there a heaven? Did someone come to meet you? Are you afraid? Are you really all right? If only I knew...if only I could be sure...
In the few days Dean had been in the hospital, I never left his side. Brooke and I slept on our coats on the floor, at the foot of his bed. I didn't eat. I don't even remember drinking anything, though I guess I must have. Finally, the doctor pronounced him well enough to go home. Oh what a sigh of relief! For the first time, as Larry was packing Dean's few things into an overnight bag, I decided to go down to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. Brooke joined me. I kissed Dean on the cheek and told him that I'd only be gone for a few minutes. The doctor had said they would like to keep him on a ventilator until the last moment before he was released.
"Pneumonia leaves debris in the lungs," he explained. "I want to make sure we've sucked it all out before we unplug him."
Sure, I agreed. No problem.
Dean nodded his consent and winked at me. I never thought about it until now. He winked at me the way Daddy used to wink at me.
And so Brooke and I went downstairs, breathing easy for the first time since he entered the hospital. We no sooner settled at the table with our drinks than I heard the call for Code Blue over the intercom. I remember thinking, Thank God it isn't about Dean. God bless the family it is for... About then a nurse came running into the room. Spotting us, she blurted out, "Hurry! Dean's leaving!"
I jumped up and ran behind Brooke to the elevator, but nothing was making sense. Why would Dean leave without me? Larry had his things nearly all packed. Why would Dean just go? The elevator flew up on snail's wings; it took forever to get to the right floor. When the doors opened, I raced out and was met by yet another nurse who reached for my hand and pulled me along, saying breathlessly, "Hurry! Hurry!"
My goodness, all this to-do over a grown man checking out of the hospital. My head was reeling, my thoughts were a jumble.
And then we were in ICU room 3. Nurses were gathered around the bed. Bill, who operated the ventilator, was standing there, looking confused and forlorn. Larry was white and stricken--and Dean was lying on the hospital bed, perfectly still. The room was absolutely hushed. Everyone moved aside so that I could get to him. I leaned over to kiss his forehead. His hands were already turning a mottled blue. I covered them with the sheet as I whispered for him to run along.
Two hours later we were driving away from the hospital. It was sunset and there was no Dean on the planet anymore.
He was here a while ago.
Now he's gone.
If only I could know he wasn't alone...that he wasn't frightened. That he still was!
That night, at home, Larry explained to me that right after I left the room, Dean motioned for the yellow pad he had been using to communicate since being put on the ventilator. Larry handed it to him. Dean wrote something and then, as Larry told it, Dean glanced at him with the merriest twinkle in his eye. "As if he had a terrific secret," Larry said. At that point, the ventilator bell began to ring, as it did whenever there was a problem. Bill or the nurse would often come running, only to find it had simply malfunctioned. They would hit the "off" button and everything would be fine again. Dean sometimes reached over and clicked it off himself before the others could arrive. This time though, Dean couldn't get it to turn off. Larry tried his hand at getting the bell to stop ringing, but had no luck either. A nurse came in and hit the "off" button over and over, to no avail. Then Bill arrived, but even he couldn't get the thing to shut off. When it did stop, it did so of its own accord. Everyone grinned at one another and shrugged. The nurse and Bill left.
And that's when it happened.
Larry said that Dean closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he grinned broadly at Larry, wrote something else on the yellow pad--two words, it turned out to be--and closed his eyes again. This time forever.
At first, Larry was too stunned to move, then the ventilator bell sounded again. A nurse saw immediately that Dean was slipping away. She ran down to get us. At the same time, another nurse and Bill were working with the ventilator, but it was, of course, too late.
In the commotion and aftermath of all that happened that day, Larry gave no more thought to the yellow pad, nor did I. Several days went by before I could bring myself to take his things from the overnight bag and a box the hospital had provided. Larry was downstairs reading the newspaper. I was upstairs in my art studio where, for some reason, I had chosen to go through Dean's belongings. His slippers...deodorant...his comb with fine blond hair tangled in its teeth...a Kleenex box... a couple of stubby pencils...and the yellow pad.
In the middle of the top page was the penciled word in Dean's writing: "Angel"--it was what he wrote first. Under that, the message he wrote after he closed his eyes and opened them again: "Am eager".
"Larry!" I screeched, racing for the stairs. "Larry!"
I slammed the pad under his nose, pointing at the three words written there; the last words Dean would leave on this earth: Angel. Am eager.
"Is this the yellow pad you were talking about? Is this what he wrote?" I could hardly catch my breath.
Larry studied the page for a moment, his eyes nearly overflowing. "My God," he said, his voice heavy with emotion. "The most important thing the kid ever wrote and I didn't even read it."
I bit back a smile. "It wasn't for you, honey. It was for me."
I sank down in a chair, clutching the precious yellow pad to me. Dean had left me a note. He said, "It's okay, Mom. I'm not alone. Somebody came for me."