by Julia Steiny
For the second time in less than a month, a home hospice experience came to its natural end. My husband’s mom died in the room next to our bedroom, on Sunday, exactly three weeks after my dad died in his own bedroom in the house where I grew up.
Back in late September, it was like a tornado came up suddenly, when all sorts of plans fell through. My in-laws could no longer manage as intended, needed immediate intensive care, and so moved into our house. She was already bedridden. Overnight, we were a whirlwind of dinners, diapers, dishes, nursing assistants, nurses, ringing phones, supplies, medication schedules and seemingly endless other details.
Just as we thought we had a bit of the rhythm, out of the blue I was called to California to my father’s deathbed. Teary, my husband and I stared at each other a desperate moment at the airport, worried acutely for one other. We threw out-of-pocket money at extra private nursing care for his mom. My kids took time off from work and came home. And people from my church, God bless my church!, delivered dinners every night to keep my husband from drowning.
Ten days later I returned to the East Coast, where the confusion rose to an upsetting crescendo last week as we struggled to get the meds right. We did, finally. A preliminary peace set in, and a day later it was over.
Then, for the second time, the oxygen machine was turned off and hospice was called. In both cases, family members sat in the room with a somewhat askew, awkward body that was now empty of the personality we’d known so well. Some wept; some stared dry-eyed and stunned. At my parents’ house a couple of us were too ansie to sit at all, but drifted in and out, mostly out. Eventually, hospice comes and cleans the body, dresses it in whatever you give them for a final outfit, and lays it out “respectfully.” Call me weird, but in both cases I’d gotten used to ministering to a disintegrating old person, so the “respectful” pose seemed creepier than the natural end point.
And for the second time, the wave of relief that settled into what had been a house in great struggle was like the sudden end of a storm. Eerily quiet. Dying is not for sissies. Life fights back, and it’s tough to watch. You can see why the process has gotten so medicalized, removed from the house and sequestered where hospital staff can behave as though death is being managed.
But none of us would have traded the experience for the world. Hospice is a heavy lift, to say the least. And both my dad and Conrad’s mom had enormous wills to live, battling for yet a bit more life with surprising ferocity. So the calm, gentle quiet feels like a gift from them to us, for our good effort.
For the second time, the families spent the remainder of the day marveling over the great run our parents had — 90 years each. My dad was super worldly. My mother-in-law was a philosopher, devoted to a life of the mind. Famous for her abstract reactions to the world, she sighed several months back and remarked that “It seems too bad to die now, when the economy is so interesting.” She was born in Nowa Ruda, Poland, the eldest of 9. She and my husband’s dad were married 66 years. Father and son are mourning well together.
So just as suddenly as the storm came up, it ceased. We’d been living in a roiling world of both my husband and me losing the parent of the opposite sex. Then as I headed back into the fray with my meds in hand, instead it was like passing through a curtain onto a cloudless, sunlight meadow of whispering tall grasses — a sad relief.
Much remains to be done. We must dismantle a house with its lifetime accumulation of goods and treasures. But at least we won’t be handling it all under the immediate threat, pressure and sweet intimacy of impending death.
Seriously, can you expect me to think of much else? These last two months have changed us forever. Only time will show how.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.