Learning To Live From The Dying: Part 2

My second hospice patient was Vera.  She was 94 when she had a stoke earlier this year.  Her family had decided that she was ready for hospice care.  I came in 3 weeks after her stroke.  Her primary caregiver is her husband Bill who is 96 and a WWII veteran.  While Bill is legally blind he still walks 2 miles a day by himself.   

When I arrived for my first shift as Vera’s caregiver she was obviously disoriented and afraid.  She had been a vigorous 94-year-old until her stoke three weeks earlier.  She and her husband were inveterate hikers even though they could no longer hike to the bottom of Grand Canyon which they did many times in their seventies and early eighties.  She obviously loves her home which she has filled with New Mexican and Native American art.

Vera had to use a wheelchair because she was unable to use her right arm or leg.  On my first visit I introduced myself and helped her move to a comfortable chair in the dining room for dinner.  She panicked when I helped her with a “lift” that brought her to her feet where she needed to support herself on her right leg while I rotated her to enable her to sit in the chair.  She froze and only with great effort was I able to rotate her.

My shift was from 4:30 to 8:30 in the evening and part of my job was to prepare dinner for Vera and Bill.  I quickly learned that eating a tasty meal was very important for them.  Vera really relaxed over a good meal.  Since I love to cook for others and have had little opportunity to cook since my husband’s death I learned what they enjoyed and started making corn bread and pies and creating dishes that they liked.  They spent the bulk of the evening at the dining room table drinking wine and eating.  At first Vera couldn’t talk very well but in a few weeks she was speaking distinctly and enjoying conversation.  The three of us would reminisce about hiking and foreign travels.  They would talk about their early life together.

After a few weeks it became clear that Vera had every intention to get over the stroke.  I and the other caregivers would encourage her to support herself when she stood and she began to walk with a walker,  just a few hesitant steps at first.  Vera continued to sleep most of the day but gradually gained strength.  Her decision to get well was clear in her determination to overcome her fears and relearn the motor skills she had lost due to the stroke.  I watched in amazement as she progressed.  Her mental and spiritual resilience were like nothing I had ever seen.  I suppose part of it was that she wasn’t worn down by a long illness like most hospice patients.  But I also think Vera’s faith, her family support and her love of her home played an enormous role in her determination to recover. 

While I gave Vera the support she needed to recover she gave me something much more precious.  She showed me how to value the life you have however severely modified by loss or suffering and embrace it.  I watched in awe as this valiant woman fought her way back when her doctors said she was ready to die.  She doesn’t know how long she has but she is going to make the best of whatever time is left.

One evening when I was helping her move from a chair to her wheelchair she was unable to support herself  and collapsed.  I was able to keep her from falling but I injured my back supporting her.  Since then I have spent my time recovering from a slipped disc and my doctor has told me that I can no longer do hospice work.  This saddens me because I got so much from my clients and miss them deeply.   I am honored, however, to known them. 

Vera’s example has encouraged me to think about how I can use the same courage she showed to move forward in my life.  Her spirit and her faith helped heal my soul.

Learning How To Live From The Dying: Part I

A few months ago I learned that my dog Billy has skin cancer.  To pay for the cost of his care I decided to go back to work.  Since I had long experience as a hospice volunteer in several states I decided take a job as an in-home hospice caregiver. 

My first assignment was to give care to and 89-year-old woman who I will call her Molly.  Her regular caregiver was on vacation for a couple of weeks so I was filling in.  She has  a rare form of  Parkinson’s disease that has attacked her  throat and her ability to speak.  Her husband Harry who is 82 is her primary caregiver.  He is a difficult man who is very critical but is attentive to his wife’s care.  Molly also has a daughter who lives in a distant state.  She is very angry at and suspicious of Harry and the two of them can’t get along. Neither the husband nor the daughter are able to express much affection to Molly.

Each day when I arrived Harry would have already given Molly her breakfast and I would try to get her up for the day.  She didn’t have much to look forward to since she would spend most of the day in front of the television watching reruns of Bonanza and Matlock.  So I looked for things that would make her the day more interesting.  First, after getting her dressed I would take her for a walk in the streets outside her home.  We would stop and look at flowers or an interesting bird or even a new car.  While I pushed her wheelchair I would recount tales of my life especially foreign travels and tell her about the people and funny or unusual experiences.  Sometimes she would try to talk with me but she could only manage a hissing sound.  At first I found it difficult to talk about myself but I realized that it was comforting for her to hear these stories and it built a connection between us.

One day I decided to take her out to a local restaurant that offers a free slice of pie on Wednesdays.  It was a difficult a project to get Molly into my car with her wheelchair but she was happy to get out of the house. Molly had a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie with ice cream and a cup of coffee.  It took over an hour for her to eat it and she ate every bite. When she had finished and I started to get her ready to go to the car she looked at me and smiled and said the only word she ever spoke to me, she said “good.” 

An unfortunate incident occurred  her husband put her in her wheelchair in the yard to get some sun.  Somehow she fell over into a cactus plant. She went to the emergency room for treatment as she had reacted to the poison in the plant.  A few days later I was filling in for her regular care giver and took her to a new doctor to look at her throat.  While we were in the waiting room I asked her how she was and if the cactus wounds were painful.  She shook her head and held out her arm to show me the large bumps that were a reaction to the cactus.  Impulsively I kissed the spot and told her that it would make it well.  She laughed!  Never before had I seen her laugh or have any instinct to mirth so we laughed together.

What I learned while caring for Molly is how important it is to find moments of joy in the life of those who have lost so much.  Neither her husband nor her daughter were capable of giving her much affection so I would lavish hugs and kisses on her, telling her she looked pretty after I had combed her hair and she had put on lipstick.  How much she needed the affirmation and how good it felt to give it to her.

The funny thing is that being able to help her helped my soul heal.  Being old and without family means that I rarely find moments in the normal course of my life when I am able to help someone.  What a joy it is to do so.

Because Molly and Harry aren’t believers the most important thing I could do was to pray for them and I still do.  I ask you to pray for them as well.

Living In A World In Which I Am Invisible

In my fifties I started to notice that I was becoming invisible to most people.  What I mean is that most people no longer met my eye when we passed in the street or had an accidental coming together in a public place.  I first noticed it with men and young people.  Even if they had to go to great lengths to not see me they would do so.  Then as I aged and lost the status of a profession this general non-recognition spread to most people. 

You may know what I mean.  If you go to someones house and they have teenagers, they don’t see you if you are an adult.  The parents may force them into some recognition of you but they usually make it quite clear that they don’t want to recognize your existence.

As an older woman it seems to terrify any man I meet to acknowledge my existence.  I have a feeling that men feel that if they acknowledge me I will then think they find me attractive  Having blessedly reached a point in my life where I agree with Gloria Steinem’s dictum that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle I would still like the recognition of my humanity.

It amuses me that when I am going into a store or walking down the street the one person who will meet my eye is an older women.  We acknowledge each other with a wry smile that allows us to affirm our existence to one another in spite of the world’s judgement.  I treasure these moments. 

So what is the point of this reverie?  It has made me more sensitive to others that don’t exist.  Who are they? People who are unattractive or handicapped or have mental problems or are of low status or like me simply old.  I have learned to try to acknowledge these fellow non-beings when we encounter one another.  Often times they are so used to being ignored that they don’t even realize I am trying to meet their eye.  Sometimes the destitute when recognized ask me for money which is a grace from God if I can help them.  What I give them isn’t enough to really make a difference and may even be used for drugs or alcohol.  None-the-less I hope they felt recognized in a simple friendly human glance and a smile.

One of the benefits of being invisible is that it can result in humility.  After my husband died my invisibility made me feel desperate to prove that yes I exist.  When I wasn’t acknowledged by others I despaired of ever being significant to anyone.  This contributed to my suicidal desire.  I wonder if Job felt that way?  Especially since he was the richest and most important man in the land.  I wonder if the most difficult thing for him wasn’t the loss of health, property or even his children but simply the loss of his identity?   He no longer was who he had been.  He was a man sitting in a garbage dump scraping his skin as it peeled from his body.  He couldn’t give lavish gifts to his children even if they still existed.  He had nothing.  Maybe he thought his children wouldn’t have wanted to know him if they still lived since he had sunk so low. 

The turning point for me was that moment when I knew that I exist even though the world may not care.  I exist because I was created by God who loves me and sustains me.  At that point my prayer became like those wry smiles I exchange with other older women, God and I share the recognition that I exist because he loves me and that is simply reason enough.