What follows is published with permission of the family of Angela Fernandes.
It was really out of left field.
Angela Fernandes has been a friend since the mid 2000s. She was bold, brash, funny, smart and adventurous. She moved to Seattle from North Carolina somewhere around 15 years ago. A committed lifelong Catholic, she marched up to me after Mass at Blessed Sacrament and introduced herself (she’d read something or other I’d written and knew who I was). She immediately became friends with our whole family and was often over to our house for meals (she was a MAJOR foodie and gustatory adventurer) and conversations often punctuated by her boistrous laugh. A decade or so ago, she had gotten a degree in counseling and become a very gifted therapist, serving a wide clientele in the Seattle area.
We were practically the first people she met when she came to Seattle.
And this past Saturday evening, we were the last people she saw in the moments before she died.
She died right in front of me. We had been swimming, having a lovely evening, her, Jan, and me. We swam back to the shallows and had just reached the point where the lake was shoulder deep. Just as she reached the spot where you can stand and not have to swim, she suddenly just slipped under the water for a moment and then assumed a Dead Man’s Float position in the water, which I took for her relaxing after the swim. This went on for a minute or two and I tapped her on the shoulder to try to get her attention, wondering what she was up to. She did not respond, so I assumed she was perhaps timing herself or trying a breath-holding exercise. People don’t just collapse and die in front of you and she was fond of a joke, so I thought this must be some sort of prank or something. This went on for a minute or so more and I started to get scared, so I grabbed her arm and she still did not respond. That’s when I really got frightened and started pushing and dragging her toward shore. I flipped her over and she was unresponsive and foaming at the mouth. I tried to get her out of the water, but she was limp, wet, and slippery and too much for one person, so I screamed for help. The weather was sunny and warm, so the beach was packed and a bunch of strong guys came instantly and carried her to shore and started CPR, while every phone on the beach called 911. I ran around looking for a defib device but there is nothing like that at the lake (Ballinger). The EMTs got there a minute or two later and worked on her, while one of them and some cops asked me what happened and for some information about her and so forth. One of the EMTs asked how long she had been under and I told him 2-3 minutes, at which point he said that this was not very long and so that was a hopeful sign, particularly since CPR had begun immediately. They asked us to come to Swedish-Edmonds hospital since we were the only ones there who knew her or what had happened. So Jan and I blasted home (we only live a mile from the lake), got changed and rushed of to S-E (which is about 3 miles from the house).
We had grabbed her bag from the house on the way to the hospital, on the dim hope that she might want her stuff (though they had not been able to get a pulse all the time they worked on her there on the shore). So we had her phone with us in the car. It was about 8 PM our time 11 East Coast time and, as we were driving to the hospital, her phone rang and it was her Dad. So Jan had to tell him she was not breathing and had no pulse last we knew. She also sent a message to our family asking for prayers for her and we prayed on the way. (Heck, we had been praying from the moment it all began. Those incoherent “Please help!” prayers you say when your field of vision narrows to a pinpoint and feeling drains away and you are just putting one foot in front of the other while the back of your mind replays everything over and over and you scrutinize every thing you did from one millisecond to the next, wondering if you could have done anything differently and if this was somehow your fault and trying to anticipate what happens next and trying to focus on somebody besides yourself and your survivor remorse.)
As we drove over, my head began to clear and I thought about the sequence of events. The EMTs had all assumed it was a drowning incident and I was too addled to think about it clearly at the time. But as my head cleared, I realized that a) she is a very strong swimmer and b) she was, in any case, in shoulder-deep water. Whatever had happened, it was not drowning, but some kind of catastrophic event, most likely cardiac or cardiovascular (though we won’t know anything till the medical exam and results are released on Wednesday).
We got to the hospital and were met by a succession of chaplains who got info from us and took us into a back room to just be with us. Angela’s sister called as we sat there and Jan talked to her. The chaplain went to check on Angela and when she came back I could tell from the look on her face that it was over. Jan put her sister on speakerphone and the chaplain announced that she had died. Her sister, of course, fell apart and we all just sat there in shock and grief.
Then the doc came in and explained that in the 55 minutes they worked on her, they simply had never been able to get a pulse beyond an occasional very bad arrhythmia, which makes sense if the problem was something cardiac.
At some point, one of the chaplains called Fr. Augustine Hilander from Blessed Sacrament (her parish). Then while we were waiting for him, they asked if we wanted to come and sit with her body for a while, which we did. So we walked down the hall to the emergency room and they took us in. She just looked asleep after a lovely swim (and it had been a lovely swim. She had been absolutely in the pink that afternoon, eating and drinking and laughing with gusto, as was her custom. Jan had admired her bathing suit and her big hoop earrings and her glittery eye shadow and we had swum out to the middle of the lake at a leisurely pace, chatting the whole way). Now she just looked like she was napping after being tired out (albeit she was intubated).
Her Dad had called after they announced her death and the chaplain gave him some basic info on what to expect/do next, and as he rang off, he asked us to kiss her for him, which wrung my heart. So we made the Sign of the Cross on her forehead and I delivered her father’s kiss to her forehead too, as well as one from us.
Then we just sat there with the chaplains and laid our hand on her blanketed arm for a while, not sure what to do. We made small talk. The minutes ticked by. Then her sister called again, and at the same moment, Fr. Augustine arrived. He was his golden-hearted, lovely self, 8 feet tall and full of gentle kindness. He did not anoint her, of course, since she had already died. But he prayed the Prayer of the Dead with us and with Angela’s sister on speakerphone, as well as the Litany of the Saints, both of which were beautiful and filled with peace.
He was also very consoling to me in a private conversation, but that’s neither here nor there except as testimony to what a very good priest and very good man he is, so I mention it.
Then he left and the chaplains informed us that, contrary to what they had thought earlier, we would not be needed for a statement to police, so we were free to go, if we wanted.
Son Peter had texted Jan that he was on the way to the house, so we decided we had better go meet him. So one of the chaplains guided us through the maze of hallways from Emergency to the main door.
We walked out into a cool, full moonlit summer evening and Jan (who, like me, had not the slightest worries about Angela herself or her already-begun eternity in The Ecstasy) smiled and said, “Such a beautiful Moon to light her way to Heaven.” It was such a quintessentially Jan thing to say. Jan recalled her mom’s remark that when it was her time to go, she had “places to go and people to see” and that grief was for us who remain behind, not for her.
That’s been a help as we continue to reel from the seismic aftershocks of this whole thing.
Please pray for Angela and for all of us who mourn her sudden passing!
Eternal rest grant our beloved sister and friend Angela, Father, through your Son Jesus Christ. And give her family and all of us who mourn and love her grace, peace, consolation, strength, faith, hope, and love through the same Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(Angela is the one with the long black hair, second from the right):