I wasn’t exactly sure when it happened, but sometime in December of 2010, I realized that my home had become a church.
I had always taken care of myself and my appearance, but now I found myself taking special care to dress well and attend to my grooming. I traded in shoes that clicked on my wood floors for those that were as quiet as . . . well . . . a church mouse. I became more attentive than usual to the cleanliness and neatness of the house and I wanted only soft music playing. I felt calmer, more congruent, and more at peace with myself than usual and I found myself speaking in hushed tones. I carried myself with a kind of dignity I had never before noticed. And then one day I realized that I had made sacred space of my entire surroundings. It was clear to me that Howard was nearing death and the very air seemed charged with all that was holy.
It wasn’t that my husband was a particularly “holy” man. He was a man, with all the idiosyncrasies, charms, failings, peculiarities, gifts, talents, and personality eccentricities of a man. But that was actually the point. He was human and he was dying and I seemed intuitively bound to treat this moment in time as the significant and ephemeral instant of magic and mystery that it was. He was my husband and, therefore, important to me. But he also seemed to stand for humankind itself and the essential goodness of humankind.
So my house had become a church without my consciously making it so. And the space seemed poised, waiting for something important to happen.
This is not to say that there was little activity. In fact, there was so much activity, it was sometimes dizzying. Hospice is a blessing and an army of help, but that help rings your doorbell on a fairly regular basis and has to be let in, communicated with, attended to, and put in interactive mode with the dying party. That dying party was Howard and he remained intent on being entertaining—that is, when he was not being a curmudgeon. He carried both with no apparent paradox.
Apart from hospice, friends began to appear at the door. The word had gotten out—through the phone lines, Internet, and thin air—that Howard didn’t have long. He had refused to allow people to see him in bed, but one day, Joe Schalmoser stopped by without notice and Howard allowed him into his sanctuary, where Joe found him propped up in bed. A month earlier, Howard had been downright rude to Cindy Morris—a friend of mine who had become his friend, too—when she followed me upstairs as I announced her arrival. He’d refused to be seen at all. He simply had not been willing to allow anyone to see him in any kind of compromised condition (as with an open bag of Depends nearby). And now he was welcoming Joe into his bedroom, treating his bed like a throne.
Then Pat and Mary Ahlstrom—old friends from the early Lakewood PD days—came by. He had softened to the idea of people seeing him in bed and with their visit, he softened further. He now wanted to see people more than he wanted to appear to be something other than he was—a dying man. Diana Wilson came on a regular basis. She had been a dispatcher at the Broomfield Police Department when Howard was chief. Years later, they connected again because of art. They were buddies and my sense was that she understood, very clearly, that the chances to see Howard were running thin.
Tom Deland, Broomfield’s chief of police since Howard left the post, came and brought his two deputy chiefs with him. It was an act of respect.
A woman who had been his paramour years before I was in the picture came to see him. She had been important to him and there was still an easy intimacy there. She’d also had cancer and knew what she was seeing in him.
She was one of the few who did. It was excruciating and frustrating to me that many of his friends and some of his family still did not seem to understand that he was dying—and going quickly. Those out of town just couldn’t see what I was seeing and Howard did his best imitation of a robust man when he talked with them on the phone.
When I wasn’t tending to the revolving door and Howard’s needs, I found myself doing things I did not want to do at all, but knew needed to be done. Like calling All-States Cremation to see what they needed from me before Howard’s death. I talked with them and faxed them information surreptitiously, which was not difficult since Howard slept when he had no visitors. And he hadn’t been downstairs to my office since the day I brought him back from his last transfusion.
I also called the assistant to my Raymond James broker to get some money because I knew my attention would not be on work for some time and any monies coming to Howard via direct deposit would stop, abruptly, with his death. Early in December, I finished an editing project and energetically shut off the flow of work so I would not be distracted by potential clients I knew I would be unable to serve until sometime after his death.
I had no time for clients anyway. Everything—and I mean everything—took more time than I would have thought. The incoming telephone calls, the visits, tending to Howard, the updates on his condition for family and friends, keeping the house and yard tended to—everything took more time. When I was in my office, I would sprint up the stairs to his room, two floors above, every twenty minutes, just to check on him. Even after my friend Helena Mariposa sent me a baby monitor so I could keep tabs on Howard more easily (one of the best gifts anyone can give to the caretaker of a dying person), I continued to wear a path up and down those stairs, just not quite as often.
Just making sure that I was there if Howard fell or otherwise found himself in a fix took time. If he had to go to the bathroom, he slowly and painfully pulled himself up in bed, swung his feet over the edge, sat for a long time to rally his strength, hefted himself up, and slowly, over many minutes, inched his way to the hallway bathroom, which was just steps outside the guest room door. Then it was half an hour before he made the slow and treacherous trip back to his bed.
Everything took on an enhanced level of difficulty and we were both behaving like Olympic gymnists, taking on the difficult moves and intent on mastering them.
But I was also on the receiving end of some remarkable acts of kindness. Out raking leaves in early December—thanks to cottonwoods that held on to their leaves like Scrooge clutched his money purse—I felt overwhelmed. I’d already raked and bagged at least twenty-five bags of leaves earlier that fall. The prospect of more sucked the life right out of me, but head down and shoulder to the project, I started in.
Then neighbors from across the street called over to me. “You look like a lady in distress,” Glenn teased. It must have been that obvious. He and his wife Kathy came over, rakes in hand, and the task was accomplished quickly. They hadn’t known that Howard was dying until I told them that day, barely able to hold back the tears.
Heather McBroome, who had been doing shamanic work with me for several years, stopped by one day, wanting to help. When you are in the thick of crisis, you can’t even readily see what someone else might be able to do for you. I told her the only things that really needed attending to were things no one else would want to take on, things like taking Howard’s truck in for an oil change.
I have no idea why it seemed urgent that this task be done. He certainly wasn’t going to be driving that truck again. Perhaps I knew I would and that it would be a long time before I’d have the presence of mind to get the oil changed. Heather didn’t blink. She took the truck in for an oil change.
Some of my friends—most notably Antonio Arguello, his wife Helena Mariposa, Cindy Morris, and Gretchen Minney—understood what was happening perfectly and were rock solid support. There was support, too, from Boulder Media Women colleagues, clients, old friends, and new friends.
But Howard’s sister Ann was right there at the center. She and Howard were very close. I knew that what was happening to him was felt by her five hundred miles away in Ogden, Utah. Through the ether. Through the blood. Through a lifetime of energetic connection. I called her regularly to keep her abreast of what was going on. She’d been a nurse for many years, so we could talk in a kind of shorthand. Then regular calls became daily calls. I didn’t want her to be blindsided when he slipped away. But in truth, I also needed her. I needed to talk to someone else who loved him, I needed a witness to what was happening who had a deep heart connection with him. That would be Ann.
I’d always loved Ann and, over the years, I’d come to feel that she was my sister, too. But that sisterhood took on a new depth. I didn’t want to burden her with the details, but there was something important in sharing them with her. The details allowed her to be there with us. And she could not be there physically. She’d had polio as a child and that had developed into post-polio syndrome, decades later. She could get around, but she couldn’t get around easily, and there was no way she could handle the stairs in our house. I knew that it pained her to know that her big brother was dying and she couldn’t be there with him.
And I needed her, even if only by phone. I didn’t have to explain my exhaustion to her, didn’t have to explain my tears. She understood the term “incompliant patient,” which was the precise term that described him, and she understood it not simply because she had been a nurse, but because she knew her brother. I felt that Ann and I were bonding in the most intimate and painful of ways—through the dying process of someone we both loved.
That was sacred space of a kind, too. The space between me and Ann, me and Howard, me and my friends and family—it was all becoming sacred space. I knew it was a little like holding one’s breath—it couldn’t last forever. But much of my daily experience, it seemed, was becoming one ongoing experience of holy communion. I was hyper-focused on Howard and his process, under the kind of stress that one is mostly unaware of while experiencing it. I was sometimes exhausted, sometimes manic with energy, and sometimes cranky. And yet, everything took on a quality of sacredness and every interaction had become one of holy communion.
Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall
Tags: All-States Cremation, Antonio Arguello, baby monitor, Boulder Media Women, Broomfield Police Department, cancer, Cindy Morris, death and dying, Diana Wilson, end of life issues, Gretchen Minney, Heather McBroome, Helena Mariposa, home as church, hospice, Joe Schalmoser, Pat and Mary Ahlstrom, sacred space, Tom Deland