NOT an eye was dry among the nursing staff at Heathcote Hospital on December 17.
Death regularly stalks a hospital.
But this was no ordinary mortal experience for the nursing staff who had been tenderly caring for an elderly Heathcote couple, Marie Carpenter, 76, and her husband Brian, 86.
In the days preceeding Marie, who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and ulcerated colitis, had been admitted with severe pneumonia. The family was told she did not have long to live.
The hospital arranged for Brian to stay with his wife in her final days on a bed next to her.
Their children Ellen and Nigel rushed from interstate and Melbourne to be by their mother’s side and support their grief-stricken Dad.
In room 6 of Heathcote Hospital, Brian held himself up painfully on his side to watch and hold his wife.
“I would say to Dad, ‘Dad why don’t you lie down, it’s hurting you,’ but he wouldn’t,” Ellen says.
All their lives, the couple had been extremely close.
The nurses could feel the couple's special bond.
Taking their temperatures, staff noticed something odd. No matter when their temperatures were taken, they were always exactly the same.
One nurse was so puzzled by this he thought the thermometer was broken.
At 1.30am on Monday December 16, the family got the call they knew was coming: their mum was fading fast, and they should get to the hospital now to say their final goodbyes.
Brian held his wife and told her how much he loved her. Holding her hand he said over and over: “ Don’t leave me.”
Ellen recalls: “He kept saying ‘don’t go…stay with me.’
Marie, though mortally ill, was hanging on to her soulmate for as long as she could, Ellen believes.
“Finally I said ‘Dad, she’s ready to go…you’ve got to let her go.’ But he just couldn’t.”
The morning before Marie died, the stress overwhelmed Brian and he had a panic attack.
“Mum could hear everything, though she couldn’t talk to us,” Ellen says.
"So I said to Mum: ‘Mum, I know you heard what happened this morning with Dad.
“But he’s OK, he’s sleeping and we’re looking after him.
“He’s OK and you can go now.’ And a few minutes later, she did.
“I think she was holding on for him, because he wasn’t ready to let her go.”
After their mother passed, grief engulfed the family: Brian, Ellen, her brother Nigel, his daughter Bronwyn and their cousin Mary from Bendigo.
Amid the tears, they began to think about funeral arrangements and eulogies to honour her life.
They were all utterly unprepared for what happened next.
After Marie’s death Brian stayed on in hospital.
Aside from the understandable grief, he seemed otherwise OK.
He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer some time earlier but was nowhere near death’s door, according to the doctors and specialists who assessed him.
Almost exactly 24 hours after Marie died, a nurse saw Brian get up to go to the bathroom, and go back to bed.
When she checked on him an hour later, Brian was dead.
The nurses later said there was no indication he was dying, Ellen says.
"The nurses were completely stunned.
“My Dad died of a broken heart, I have no doubt about that."
Ellen describes her late mum as a social “chatterbox” but also caring, a great gardener and close to nature.
“My mother was an incredibly caring person. She would do anything for anyone,” Ellen says.
“My memories of her are about her cooking wonderful food and her doing everything she could do to make people’s lives easier.” That including caring for her mother-in-law when she developed Alzheimer’s.
Brian, 10 years older than Marie, was “charming, intelligent and handsome”, Ellen says. He loved the classics of literature and music and had a great sense of humour.
The couple moved to Heathcote in the mid-1990s where they started a new chapter on three acres which bustled with wildlife – kangaroos, magpies, a galah called Gully and two kookaburras called Ned and Kelly.
Nigel says his parents, who loved classical music and artists like Ella Fitzgerald, often danced alone in their living room looking out on a beautiful bushland view.
Ellen says her parents cared for each other “in every way”. If her mother was sick, her father would bring her coffee and sit by her bed.
They called each other “my love” and always had something to talk about.
Ellen remembers staying at her parents’ one night and hearing them talking into the early hours.
“They were just holding each other in bed, chatting away together.
“They were always holding each other.”
Nurses told the family they had rarely seen a more devoted couple.
One nurse remarked after they had both passed away: “two bodies, one soul”.
The staff were all in tears when their Dad and Mum died, Ellen says.
The nurses who cared for her parents at Heathcote Hospital were “unbelievable.”
“Every nurse we met, on every shift, was phenomenal, not just for our parents but for us,” Ellen says.
“They made us cups of tea, brought us food…I can’t speak more highly of them."
Nurses organised a pre-Christmas lunch for the family, where Marie and Brian managed to pull a Christmas cracker together for the last time.
Although shocked and devastated to lose both their parents within 24 hours, the family draws comfort from knowing that neither would suffer the pain of living without their soul mates.
December 19 would have been their 57th wedding anniversary.
The family are spending Christmas at the Heathcote house their parents loved so much.
Ellen says while the family will miss them terribly, it would have been awful if one had died without the other.
"It's sad for us...but at least this way, they are together...and we will celebrate that."
Even in death they will not be separated.
At the memorial service in Bendigo today their caskets will be next to each other - Brian on the right, and Marie on the left, because that is how they slept together in bed.,
One of the songs to be played is Ella Fitzgerald's Do I love You, with the line: If the sun should desert the day, what would life be?
Something Brian and Marie will never have to endure.