Saturday, October 31, 2009
WHEN DEATH COMES HOME II: GOODNIGHT IRENE
The silence is deafening. I just came in from feeding the horses and cleaning out the stalls. My wife, Deb, has gone to do some errands. This would have been the first day in six months that we could have gone out together for a simple thing like getting groceries, but we figured someone needed to be here to take the phone calls.
Normally, Deb would be gone early Saturday mornings. It was the only time she could get out of the house for a break. At least I got to go to work every day, but Deb works at home. When I came in this morning, gone was the drone of the oxygen console and the blaring sound of the Today Show. The morning coffee and breakfast with Ma is gone. The making fun of the stupidity of people in the news is gone. Only silence.
Silence can be your friend, but it can also be unnerving. Memories come flooding back to fill the void left by the absence of noise; horses whose gallop will never be heard again; dogs whose tails no longer knock over curios, and tongues that no longer lick the face; goats, pigs, cows and chickens who no longer add to the morning symphony at sunrise. And, of course, family and friends whose presence no longer grace your life and who have moved on to that unknown netherland. Then there are the should’ves, wish I dids, if only’s, that surface from the depths of some dormant cells in the cerebrum.
Irene McCollett, age 78, transitioned on October 30th, at 10:42 a.m. She passed in her bed at home with Deb holding her hand. The transition went as both Irene and Deb had discussed on several occasions. It was peaceful, no pain, and full of grace and dignity. I had written a previous story on this topic where I provided some of the details of the situation but let me quickly recap. Irene had COPD. Two and half years ago she moved in with us as she was not taking care of herself. She was on 02 24/7 and she was not taking her medications. Her diet was atrocious. Since Deb was the only one who worked from home, we gladly took her in. Last May, she had a bout with pneumonia and we almost lost her. However, they discovered she had mesothelioma and she only had about one quarter of lung capacity. They gave her six months and she was put on home hospice care. Irene was still functioning. While she often lost her short term memory, she was still able to go to use her portable pot, she ate fine on her own and was still capable of enjoyable conversation. Basically, she was still fun to have around. For a home care giver, however, it meant that one of us had to be home at all times. Over time, this does take its toll. Offers to give us break were non-existent. Family can be funny that way. The few two times we had someone stay with her, she basically had panic attacks. To Irene, Phil and Deb were the only ones who could care for her. So, even though Hospice does provide a relief service, we were unable to use it. There was a nurse, Maria, that Ma and both of us came to love and Ma did let her stay with her so we could go out for breakfast. That was about a month ago.
About ten days ago, Ma came down with early signs of a cold, a deadly virus to someone in her condition. She was on anti-virals immediately. It made her cranky and irritable. After the course, however, she did seem better. She began to eat like a pig and was her old-self. Then, on Thursday morning, the 29th, Ma would not wake up in the morning. Nothing we tried worked. Her 02 levels were all over the board. Maria came out and spent a better part of the day with us. We love her dearly. Irene was stabilized, although still sleeping. She would react to conversation by twitching or shaking her head, but seemed unable to open her eyes. Maria told us that she may, or may not come out of it. It was not a coma, just a deep sleep. Later in the day, Don, her deceased husband of over 20 years, told me to put on some 40’s music. Be as skeptical as you want, but that is what happened.
The house seemed to be filled with people dancing. It was as if Don was simply going to dance her into the light. As some family members came over, ones that did not have ‘time’ when she was functioning to come and visit, several actually said they felt “presences” of other people. Deb said that her Dad grabbed her hand and spun her around in dance. Way cool. With company gone and the music off, Irene was resting comfortably. Deb slept beside her that night. She hoped that she would still come around. Truthfully, I felt she was essentially gone; most of her spirit went with the last dance. It was not a restful night for Deb. She spent lots of time just watching her mother. She did not want to break the pact, that Deb would be holding her hand at the end. Come morning, Irene’s breathing was very shallow. Maria came out, and the four of us sat with her and waited. Deb then saw her father and mother walk off into the light, hand-in-hand. Skeptics will say this was the imagination at work. But you know what? Life is just the imagination at work. Several moments later, without a twitch or a spasm, Irene had left.
Yes, there was crying. But there was also laughter and joy. Deb saw what she saw and was happy. Ma left the way they talked about. Gone were the struggles to catch a breath. Irene’s face was glowing, worry lines were gone; she seemed angelic, at peace and happy. Deb and Maria bathed Irene and put her in a dress. It was comical. Irene was not very cooperative. And so, the phones calls have been made, arrangements with the funeral home were done months ago, and on Tuesday, the 3rd, Irene’s physical body will be placed beside her husband’s. I look at her room and see her ‘stuff.’ And you know folks, it is just stuff. Some will be given, some will be tossed, it’s just stuff. ‘Stuff’ has caused wars and terrible misery for billions. When it is all said and done, the fight for stuff, the greed, the avarice, the economy, Wall Street, the stimulus, the Middle East, it’s only about stuff. When the generals, politicians and Wall Street executives’ die, some will ask, “What should we do with the stuff?”
Home hospice can be tough. Even with the help, little of which one should expect from family, it tries the patience. But, when it is all said and done, we would not have done it any other way. It will teach you not to fear death. It will teach you what is important in life. And so, Goodnight Irene, we’ll see you in our dreams! Thank you for being a part of our lives. We love you and will not forget you.