The past three weeks… four weeks? Honestly, maybe it’s been longer, but it doesn’t matter, because what really matters is this moment, and in this moment we’re waiting for Death.
A few months ago, the old woman decided to stay in her room. Tammie would get her out of bed and into a chair, where she could sit near the window, look at photographs of her late husband, and read the books and magazines on the little table next to her. No matter how many times we would try to coax her out of her room to come watch some television or visit with us, she would refuse. If we insisted, she would become agitated, and that was no good. So we stopped.
One day, she fell in her room when her leg quit working and ended up going to the ER where she spent several hours getting tests done and attempting to remove all the IV’s and monitors that were attached to her. That fall was the beginning of the end. It was the last day she spent any time sitting in the living room, and it was only for about 30 minutes. She always complained that her legs hurt, but we coaxed her to keep using them. She fell a few more times, and since she’d broken a couple ribs on that first fall, we couldn’t lift her with the gait belt, so we called the paramedics for a courtesy lift which she didn’t like. So she stopped. She stopped getting out of bed. She stopped going to the bathroom to void her bowels and bladder. She stopped eating solid food. She simply...stopped.
Someone, either at the hospital or fire department, suggested hospice, so Tammie called the old woman’s primary care provider, and she came to the house to assess her patient. It didn’t take long for her to agree that this situation wasn’t going to get better and we needed help. “We’ll turn the paperwork in today and you should be hearing from them by Tuesday.
On Thursday, hospice came in and it was a breath of fresh air. They were very upfront about what to expect and the relief we felt was immense. Their kindness and understanding were a balm to our ragged nerves and frayed emotions. After fifteen months of 24/7 care, we had found a lifeline; we had help and understanding. We also had a couple of booklets that explained what we can expect and that’s where we learned she’d been slowly dying for a few months.
By the time hospice got involved, the old woman was completely bedridden. We were changing diapers and bedding and she was only taking in liquids, and not large quantities. In attempts to keep her hydrated, we had been giving her electrolyte drinks, and came up with the bright idea of mixing the protein powder with it for a super meal. It worked. For a while. But it was too sweet and she asked to not have it any longer.
Then it was down to just the electrolyte drink (still too sweet), chicken broth, and water. Then just the broth and water. Then water. It wasn’t long before she forgot how to drink from a straw and we gave her water with those pink tooth sponges.
The social worker from hospice came to visit. She listened to us spill our guts, good, bad, and funny, and passed no judgment. She even laughed at our gallows humor and got our inappropriate jokes. She assured us there was nothing wrong with what we were saying, because that was our way of dealing with a very difficult situation.
It was a much more relaxing experience than the one we had with a nurse who wasn’t quite prepared for... us! After checking out the old woman, she came out to talk to us about meds and I mentioned that we would be interested in some home-health care help. She turned to me and asked, “So, how often are you here?” When I said, “I live here, this is my home,” you could hear her brain kind of back up and slowly fall over a cliff. “Oh” was all she said. I just smiled and sniffed the air, fragrant with the scent of burning synapses. The bath lady thinks Tammie and I are sisters. Some day we’ll laugh about it, but right now, we just want it to be over.
As crude, rude, crass, whatever as that may sound, it’s true. It’s heartbreaking to see the old woman in that room, the twilight cast of the sun through the blinds pinched closed against the light because it hurts her eyes. She sleeps all day now, barely moving, so Tammie and I have to do that for her. But first we have to give her pain meds because it hurts her so much. Her breathing is slowing to the point where we’re counting at least 4 seconds between breaths. Try it.
She gags and chokes on the drops of water she gets off the little dental sponge we use to give her water and to wet her excessively chapped lips. Her liquid pain medicine, metered out in .25 mg doses, causes more choking and gagging, but we have to give it to her.
One of her meds is to keep her calm, because that woman has the grip of a caped crusader when we’re trying to change or move her. She pinched me under my arm once and it felt like I’d been bitten by a horse. We got a new hospital bed for her, this one with half rails, so she can feel safe when we move her around on the bed. Unfortunately, with her grip, she’ll glom onto one of those rails and there’s no moving her. Tammie has tried to get her to hug herself when we’re doing this, and it helped for a while, but she forgot and the fight was on again. She’ll jam her elbow into the mattress, stiffen her shoulders, and become a solid rock of stubborn old woman.
As of this writing, she’s still alive, although I personally feel “alive” is a bit of a stretch. Let me rephrase that: She’s still breathing, she’s still waiting. I just wish I knew what it is she’s waiting for. Tonight, as we were tucking her in, we told her it’s ok to go. There are people waiting for her on the other side and she’ll get to see them again, only now she won’t be in pain, she won’t be tired. The music will play and she and papa will dance once again. We told her everyone understands and wishes her well, and it’s ok to go.