Category Archives: dying

Blue Bird

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Blue Bird

I think I have a team of angels around me. Many are the clients I have met since starting my business a handful of years ago. The business is set up as a concierge, more times than not, I work with elderly clients. I’m usually brought in by the adult children who worry about their parents safety or want to improve their quality of life. I never know what I’m walking into until the situation reveals itself. Before I can blink I’m attached to my new friends.

Many of my clients are sick and/or elderly and we typically part ways when they die or move to a nursing home. That’s the hard part. I saw a blue bird this morning and was reminded of a dear client.

Clara, she comes as a blue bird per my request. I didn’t want a cardinal because well, that’s been overplayed. Clara was the mother of an acquaintance of mine. The business was fairly new when she reached out several years ago and asked me to meet her parents. We have since become close friends.

I felt an instant pull toward Clara and honestly I would have visited her for free. If she turned down my services, I would have wept. She had a soul that pulsated love and good energy. I’ve only met a few people like her in my life and I was desperate to be around her. She and her husband lived on a small farm and she was pretty sick when I started. Within a week I suggested that she transition to hospice to be as comfortable as possible.

It was an interesting work environment. I did a lot of laundry and light house keeping which is typical. I also washed outdoor furniture and helped prep for meals and social events. I made my first quiche ever for Clara because she was hosting a breakfast. I’ve since made many and they are super easy and quite impressive. Clara had a way of getting you to do things slightly outside of your comfort zone and then you felt a little bit of pride for the successful stretch.

One of the most memorable days was helping Clara shower before she transitioned to Hospice and got a Home Health Aide. It’s not something I typically do but she was uncomfortable and I would have done just about anything for her. She lost what was left of her hair in that shower. It upset her husband, she was relieved.

Clara moved to America from China as a teenager. From what I can remember she taught herself English over a single summer. She and her husband met at a private prestigious high school. She went on to become a nurse and eventually worked at that school. She was intelligent, kind and just being in her presence made you a better person. She had a life rich with experiences, family, profound friendships, service, world travel and she hosted many delicious meals. Thank you blue bird for the visit this morning.

Miracle…..Whaaaat?

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Miracle…..Whaaaat?

Some days I take my work home with me, not unusual most people do this on some level. I had an outing with Rob and Laura yesterday. We did our usual running around with a few add on stops to Miracle Ear and the Butcher. Only old people and Italians go to the butcher on a regular basis. As is the case wherever we go, my clients are greeted by name and with genuine smiles.

Miracle Ear was different because the appointment was for Laura. This is only the second time I’ve taken her to any type of medical appointment. Rob has an entire team of specialists that have him on their rotation – MD, Cardiologist, Podiatrist, Urologist and blood draws on the regular. I’ve taken him to the hospital for a chest x-ray and last minute doctor visits at least half a dozen times in as many months. Rob is 95, Laura is 92 so there isn’t a huge age difference. From my observation Laura is just a bit more stubborn and perhaps more resilient. I suspect if her arm fell off she’d scoop it up and be prepared to slug me with it if I suggested getting it checked out. She’s definitely the tougher of the two.

I almost felt bad for the technician at Miracle Ear, he was trying so hard to be endearing, telling us about his family weekend. After about 10 minutes and far too many details about his cousin’s two year old’s birthday party at Knoebels (details included the parking lot layout and traffic patterns) he got around to asking Laura how her hearing was doing.

Tech: Well Laura, how is your hearing?

Laura: Whaaaaat?

Tech: Your hearing can you hear me?

Laura (aggravated): Yes, and now it’s my turn. I’m returning this (tosses a hearing aid on the desk), I don’t want it!

Tech: This is a hearing aid for your left ear. Model IDK2017

Laura: Yes, I don’t want it. It gave me an infection. You keep it!

Tech (sensing the hostility, made a wise choice): Alright then.

The rest of the errands went on without much drama until we got back to their house. Halfway up the walkway to the front door, Rob’s legs quit working. He was reduced to incremental strides which could be measured in centimeters instead of inches. Rob is over six feet tall and weighs 190 pounds. I’m 5′ 4″ and weigh significantly less (that’s as close to my weight as you’ll get from me), it took a Herculean effort to get him over the threshold. Once we got into the house, Laura appeared with a walker to replace his cane. That helped and we were able to get him into his favorite chair.

Once Rob was seated, I got him some water and fetched him lunch. I stayed an additional forty minutes to observe him, it was quite a scare. As soon as I left I texted his children to let them know what happened and suggested that someone check on him later that night. I also called a few hours later to check in and he bragged to me about making it to the bathroom without his cane (I may have gasped).

And this is the hardest part of my job….I become attached to these people and I know our time is limited. I realize we all have limited time, it just seems more pronounced when you are dealing with people in their 90’s. I worry about them. I worry what will happen if one dies before the other which is, statistically likely to happen. I ponder which one would be better able to live without the other. They will be married 69 years in August. I wonder how much time we will have together before it all changes, their vulnerability is palpable.

 

Winter View

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Winter View

I can just barely make out her house from the window above my kitchen sink. Once the trees fill out for spring, I may just see a splash of color or a bit of rooftop. It’s a beautiful house, old and charming, lovingly decorated with authentic treasures and keepsakes. It isn’t large or small and there is nothing cookie cutter about it. Little nooks and crannies are filled with art and memories, photos line the hall going up to the main level. The kitchen is open with modern appliances that somehow work in this older space. There is an air of authenticity about the place. Ginger and Amber are two tiger striped cats and they fit right in.

I went to visit my neighbor today. It was the first time I had ever been inside her house. Years ago my kids and I stood in her driveway getting bags and reflective vests for a neighborhood roadside cleanup. Neighborhood sounds misleading, these houses are all independent of each other in construction and in life. This area is upscale and spread out sadly, I can only name a handful of my neighbors and we’ve lived here for ten years. This is not unusual as most people have busy lives that are headed in different directions.

Today’s visit was as a hospice volunteer, I relieved the caregiver so she could go food shopping. I’ve often wondered what that particular house looked like on the inside and now I know. Once again, I am reminded a lot of people have something difficult going on in their lives right now. Sometimes it’s an inconvenience or a wounded ego, other times it is facing an imminent final goodbye. I’m not sure if I will see my neighbor again. I am sure that I will think of her whenever I drive by her house and I’ll be reminded of what is truly important.

 

The Man on the Bed

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The Man on the Bed

I made a new friend yesterday, his name is Lenny and he’s 85. He happens to be dying of lung cancer but we didn’t talk much about that. I went to visit him as a hospice volunteer. Lenny’s house is a treasure trove of art and dust. His room smells like urine and his clothes are in a pile on the floor near his bed. If you can look past that, you are rewarded with art from several cultures and genres.

Soon after I arrived I noticed a copy of “The Man on the Bed” painting. This painting was created by Robert M for the December 1955 Grapevine (an Alcoholics Anonymous publication). I commented on the painting and informed my new friend that I was sober 35 years though I don’t go to meetings anymore. Lenny also got sober in the 80’s and attends 6 – 10 meetings a week.

The man is on oxygen and has a catheter and it doesn’t stop him. We joked about the car he drives which happens to be a Ford Escape and we decided it was the perfect name for his vehicle. Indeed he is escaping every time he leaves the house. For an hour or so he is welcomed into a warm room full of people he is fond of, embracing the humanity of it as a respite from the confines of his bed.

We talked a lot about Lenny’ s life, he’s had a fascinating life. He was born in Copenhagen in 1934. He spent his childhood in institutions as he was abandoned by his parents. His country was under German occupation during World War II when he was a child. He has vivid memories of interacting with German soldiers as a young boy. He recalled one memory when he was affectionately picked up by a German soldier and placed in the sidecar of a Zundap motorcycle which had a machine gun attached to it.

He never sat in a traditional classroom, he taught himself to read by working out the captions under illustrations. He has always been drawn to art and artists. He credits his time at the Summerhill School in Suffolk England for encouraging his creativity. He described it as a free range approach to education, no classroom required.

He became a mason apprentice at 14 and got his Mason Certificate and Union Book four years later. He traveled the world through his trade and spent time in Sweden, Norway, Germany, Greenland and Australia. He came to the USA in 1963, he arrived on old freighter which was riddled with bullet holes. He disembarked in Hoboken, New Jersey and got his green card.

We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about his three marriages. He did tell me that each of his wives was wonderful and that the blame for failure was his alone. He had four children and two died from overdoses. We didn’t dwell on it, he took the blame for that as well. He told me he was a lousy father, not at all present for his children when they were growing up. Three decades of sobriety has a way of smoothing out the rough edges of self acceptance.

Sometimes you need to spend time with the dying to fully appreciate living. I can’t wait to visit my new friend again.

Finding my Way

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Finding my Way

65, 52, 47, 76, 83, 77, 68, 47, 49, 42, 42, 42, 39 I watched the numbers change like a heartbeat roulette wheel and I was betting heavy on black. Wishing for a different outcome and dreading the likely one. Praying it wouldn’t take that long, mouthing words of comfort, rubbing my father’s arm, listening to the sounds of tears and gurgling breath. I watched my father slip into the big sleep and still managed to be shocked when the nurse pronounced him. He is gone, it shouldn’t have gone down like this.

He went in for a routine test and things went terribly wrong from there – abdominal surgery, cardiac arrest and ultimately death. He was a firefighter, a first responder, he should have died in a fire, saving someone, or on the bay doing a water rescue. It was at least 15 years too soon, he left us brain dead for days before his final departure. A situation that caused his children from two marriages to come to consensus on his care and arrangements. Unlikely as it is, that has been the easiest part of this mess. His children are amazing, each and every one.

I feel robbed, I’m angry. I’m many things right now, anger is the easiest feeling to process. She keeps the depression an arm’s length away. Well she tries, the feelings seep in on their own schedule. I’m experienced enough to know that grief comes in waves. Sometimes those waves pull you under until you can find your footing again. Then you try to get yourself off the sandy bottom, wobbling into an upright position to face the next round. Sometimes you can anticipate the wave and jump up into the big one and ride it to shore. Be careful, if you turn your back on the ocean, those little waves can knock you down when you least expect it. My father didn’t give me much life advice but I do remember this, never turn your back on the ocean.

 

 

Broken

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Broken

Sometimes you stumble your way through the dark on an unfamiliar path trying to  discern the next right step. In my experience, these paths are riddled with emotional land mines. You anticipate the boogeyman when he jumps out in front of you. When you hear the creepy music, you don’t have to turn your head to know someone is behind you. Then there’s the stuff that blindsides you and takes you to your knees, the unexpected hits you never saw coming. I’ve had a week of those.

The days are blurring together and feel oddly suspended as they do when things get awful. Some slow motion version of life settles in as you try to adjust to the new normal, which is anything but typical. On Wednesday, I went to visit my father in the hospital and they were talking about discharging him. Then on Thursday morning, he went into cardiac arrest and he’s been in a coma-like state ever since. The prognosis is grim and now we wait for things to change in some new direction. Waiting for milestone hours to pass; 24, 48, 72 and we continue to wait, and wait and the days feel like weeks and every so often the physical/mental/emotional exhaustion comes over you like a tidal wave. It feels a lot like drowning, minus the water. I’ve been dry drowning.

This situation is awful enough on it’s own and yet, there’s more. Five decades of an on again/off again father-daughter relationship, half siblings, a beloved twin who is far away, a history of family tragedies and what can I say, it’s complicated. I’m the oldest of seven, one of the two from the first disastrous marriage. The other siblings are from my father’s second marriage. His second wife died in a car accident in 2000. His youngest child died by suicide a handful of years ago. The pain this family has experienced is enormous and I feel like a ghoulish outsider with unfettered access.

As I’m getting older, friends and loved ones have lost parents. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like for me when the time came. I no longer resent my father for what he did or didn’t do when I was a child and yet, we aren’t especially close. Not a conscious effort to stay separate, it just became easier to chose other priorities. I’ve also tried to insulate my children from the dysfunction of my childhood. There is a lot of my personal history that they don’t know yet. As they are getting older more is coming to the surface but not everything.

I’m a strong person, been through plenty of my own shit and always came out the other side on top. I’ve beaten odds that no one could’ve predicted. If younger me was a horse in a race, no one in their right mind would have bet on me and yet I placed. I found my way into the winner’s circle, against all odds. I thought I would be somewhat disconnected when dealing with my father’s mortality, I was wrong.

Yesterday I felt hallowed, a husk of a human who had their innards scraped out. An emptiness that was dark and consuming, a black hole from within. It took me by surprise and I had to yield to it. I could not leap through this particular ring of fire, I had to stand in front of the flames and watch it burn. Eventually I had to accept help and let my husband and kids join me at the hospital.

In the middle of my pain, I imagined myself as a plate made of fine china with an intricate pattern. Seemingly intact, functional and somewhat pleasing to behold. Upon further inspection a hairline crack is discovered, the kind that can cause the plate to break if it is not handled in a delicate manner. If you feel the edges on the backside the chips reveal themselves and you know this plate has been compromised. It makes me wonder if the damage is visible to an outsider. From a distance, it looks good but up close, you can see it’s damaged and on the verge of being broken.