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Four days before her death, aides were still trying to feed Lucille, who rejected all but a few bites. George and their sons Jim, left, and Bill mug at Lucille, trying to elicit some kind of reaction.

Speaking the unspeakable

IN THEIR hearts, group members harbor an unsettling thought. Around the conference table, they can say it out loud.

"I pray that Harry dies," Ruth Morgan says. "The quality of life just isn't there."

"So I can't be completely wrong," Millie Gundlach says. A neighbor chastised her for hoping for a quick end for Ralph, who is declining fast in a nursing home.

"He is suffering. He isn't my husband. But I hurt my children by saying that. I won't ever mention it to my children again."

George always feared Lucille wouldn't take to nursing home life, and he was right. She stopped eating and has lost 26 pounds. George has ruled out tubes or machines, and nurses give her 40 days.

"I love my wife, but I still pray every night that she goes up above," George says. "I can even talk about this now without crying.

"To hell with the neighbors!"

The vigil

DEATH IS respected at Bon Secours Maria Manor. No tiptoeing, no whispering, no drape pulling. When staffers think a resident will die within three days, they begin a service they call "Angels Passing By."

Aides stay in the room around the clock. They bring in a CD player for soft music, an angel pin for the pillow, lotions for rubbing, and a journal so people can write messages.

It's late on a Friday night, and Lucille Hoffman shares her pillow with a tiny metal angel.


“A GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT”

She weaves in and out of sleep. Her legs twitch. George cups her chin in his hand, strokes her hair and kisses her forehead.

"You liked everybody. I don't think you had an enemy. Do you? Do you?"

She rubs his cheek and sniffs her fingers for his familiar Old Spice.

Lucille began rejecting food after George put her in the nursing home four months ago. A brain riddled with advanced Alzheimer's sometimes can't signal the mouth to swallow. But George and his children offer a more comforting explanation:

After 10 years of helplessness, Lucille is willing herself to die.

On Saturday, George conducts a long-distance argument with their 55-year-old daughter, Barbara Deal, who lives in Virginia. She wants to drive to the bedside, but George is the worried parent, grumbling about women alone on the highway. Barbara stops answering her phone and George figures she's on her way.

An aide offers Lucille a dab of Italian ice, but she pushes away the spoon. Contrary to popular belief, dehydration makes dying easier, because the body releases natural pain killers.

Barbara rolls in at 2 a.m. Sunday. Lucille calls her name and smiles. As Barbara strokes her mother's brow, Lucille wraps her arms around her neck and pulls her down in a tight hug. George and their son Bill come to the bed. Lucille pulls each of them down as well.

"I think she knew it was her last shot," Bill says. "I think she stored up all her energy to say goodbye."

Before the sun rises Monday, Lucille lapses into a coma -- head thrown back, mouth open, eyes unblinking. Soft, shallow breaths rattle through her chest.

George indulges in dozens of kisses. "It's a blessing," he says. "No more worry about what sentences mean. No more worry about going to the bathroom and eating. No more showers to clean off the shit."

Bill thinks of good times, like when his mother gave him dance lessons. "Women would ask me where I learned to dance. I'd say, My mama and Lawrence Welk taught me."'

The nurses have told the Hoffmans to expect a final gasp when Lucille dies. They wait for it all day. By early evening, they debate whether some of them should go home and sleep in shifts. A nurse feels Lucille's cold feet and suggests they wait.

Two hours later, Lucille's breathing slows dramatically; 30 seconds pass between breaths, then 40, then one long pause.

Bill kisses her. "'Bye, Mommy."

"Her job is finished," Barbara says. "A good and faithful servant, you are being called. Dad, push the call button to get a time of death."

George just stares. "She's gone."

Bill tries to close Lucille's eyelids, like in the movies. George tells him to stop. Bill persists, but the eyelids won't close.

"Stop it!" George yells.

Lucille takes another breath, as if she won't leave while the two of them quarrel.

Five minutes later, her breathing stops again.

"We're right here, Sweetie," Barbara whispers in her mother's ear. "When you are ready to say goodbye, you can go. We loved having you in our lives."

A nurse confirms that the heartbeat has stopped.

"Goodbye, Sweetheart," George says, a tear dripping from his nose. "She always gave me that little smile, and that A-okay sign. She couldn't talk to me."

"She's A-okay now," Barbara says.

The soft viola music on the CD comes to the end. George hugs Barbara and wanders glassy-eyed into the hallway, looking for guidance. Should they notify the doctor? Do they wait until the funeral home people pick up the body?

That might be hours, the staff tells him. It's okay to go home.

"My love is gone," George tells his son. "There are a few people I gotta call."

Wooden chairs

Terrorists brought down the World Trade Center two days ago and the world has turned crazy.

The sky is prematurely dark as Tropical Storm Gabrielle bears down on Florida's west coast. Whenever the door of Anderson-McQueen Funeral home opens, rain gusts in with clumps of mourners.

Inside the hushed chapel, Lucille Hoffman, in a new green dress, lies in a cherry wood coffin.


“THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH CRYING”

Cheri Whitaker arrives early, having driven through the deluge from her daughter's house in Fort Lauderdale. The former support group leader has cropped her hair and lost weight and makes for a most welcome surprise for George. They stand arm in arm at the coffin and talk softly about Lucille's final days.

Neighbors, friends and elderly cousins filter in and chat with George and his children, Bill, Barbara and Jim. The conversation is polite and subdued.

Members of the support group arrive, shaking out their umbrellas. George's face lightens, his voice becomes animated.

"Hey, Ruth," he calls to Ruth Mooney, the Pantyhose Lady. "I have 30 pantyhose now with nothing to do with them. You can have them all."

Yesterday morning, Jack Grable called George just to check on him. When Jack found out about Lucille, he called Ed Thompson and the two of them told everyone in the group.

George ushers Gil Nichols to the coffin.

"You've never met Lucille, but you are going to meet her now. Lucille, this is Gil."

Gil kneels on a prayer bench and speaks of Dick, who died a few months ago after a sudden bout with pneumonia.

"He's going to meet your wife up there," she says. "They are both in a better place."

Gary Smith wears his green suit for the first time in two years. This is the last place he wants to be: When his father killed himself years ago, the funeral took place in this same room.

Gary tries his best to console George but can barely speak. His face contorts in pain, his body quivers. "She looks good," he finally manages.

George ministers to him. "Yup. She's upstairs and she's looking down on us all."

"I shouldn't be so emotional," Gary says.

"There's nothing wrong with crying. You just got to let it out."

Gil sits near the front and stews about Whitaker. For years at support group, Gil always sat to her right. Not a week passed without the two of them holding hands in friendship.

Two months ago, Whitaker abruptly left town to stay with her daughter. She hasn't communicated much with anyone in the group, and no one has communicated with her. Everyone signed a "thinking of you" card, but Whitaker says she never received it, and her nerves are tender.

When Gil arrived at the funeral home, she passed within a few feet of Whitaker but neither said a word, waiting like schoolgirls for the other to make the first move. Both feel snubbed.

Finally Whitaker approaches Gil with her arms out. Gil hesitates, then steps into her embrace.

"I left you messages," Whitaker says.

"Only one!" Gil says, almost accusingly.

"Two!"

"Well, shit happens," Gil says, still a bit standoffish.

The ice broken, they begin to talk and, occasionally, touch.

The service begins. George and his children sit in the front row. Friends and relatives are sprinkled on wooden chairs around the room.

Halfway down the right side, the support group has staked out its territory. Except for Myrna, who just joined the group, everyone is here -- Carol and Lucy, Gil, Mary, Millie, Evelyn and Arthur, Ruth, Jack, Cliff, Phil, Gary and Ed.

They line 21/2 rows, without a space separating them.

A deacon at Holy Family Church invokes "the ties of friendship that bind us through life" and begins to pray.

Shoulder to shoulder, they bow their heads.

     
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