Posts Tagged ‘end of life’

Moving into the Mystery

December 28, 2011

“Pittsburg,” is the only part of what he says that I can make out. He sits up, trying to muster the strength to do what I know he cannot: move from the bed to the commode next to it. He has asked a question that I cannot decipher, except for the word “Pittsburg.” I can think of no connection to Pittsburg, no conversation we’ve had about the city—nothing. Either I, in my weariness, am just not putting together something obvious or he has drifted farther away cognitively. I consider the possibility of the former but suspect it’s the latter.

I have given him his morphine and I eventually get him to lie back down, but he sits up again almost immediately. I tell myself that if I could get a bit of Adavan in him, he might be less restless, but he won’t take the Adavan. I call Antonio, thinking that he may be more successful at it than me, but before Antonio can get to the house (a thirty-five minute drive), Howard is down and has taken it. I call Antonio’s cell to tell him that he needn’t come, but he insists on coming anyway.

While Antonio is at the house, Kristen, the hospice angel of a nurse who had helped get him back into bed the previous night (Christmas night), calls. She had promised to follow up and is fulfilling that promise. She manages to convince me that we can get a hospital bed into the room without removing the queen-sized bed and her description of how we’ll manage it makes sense to me. Howard needs the restraint of the sidebars and I need the ability to move the bed up and down.

It is a stroke of luck that Antonio is with me. Kristen has ordered the bed and it arrives in less than an hour and a half. Kristen continues to behave as if she has angel wings. She comes to the house and the three of us manage to move Howard from the guest room bed to the hospital bed—no small thing because even though he has lost a great deal of weight over the past month, he is still somewhere around two hundred pounds . . . of dead weight.

Howard is semi-comatose and cannot help at all in this process. That’s the downside. The upside is that he also cannot fight against it. He has refused a hospital bed up to this point because it represents death to him. But it can no longer be avoided and he is, indeed, close to death.

In a moment of overwhelm, I call my sister Maureen, who has offered to drive out from Illinois to help with Howard’s care, and tell her, “I give up. Come on out.” But after we have Howard settled, I think, I can do this. Nevertheless, I’m glad she will be on her way. I’m not sure she will actually make it before he dies, but I will be relieved to have her there with me.

And now the waiting begins. The next couple of days are a blur. I consider what should be done before Howard dies and call his sister Ann and his three sons, not simply to alert them to the fact that he is close to death, but to give them a chance to say whatever they want to say to him. He is beyond words now, so he won’t be able to talk to them, but I can hold the telephone up to his ear and they can talk to him.

They all want to do this.

With each, I hold the telephone to Howard’s ear and tell him that he need do nothing, just listen. I’m fairly certain that he can still hear, even if he cannot talk, and I want to give him permission to just listen and not struggle to even try to get words out. But he does try to get words out with each of them. He’s unsuccessful at this except with his oldest son, Jim.

Jim makes his peace with his father and it brings me to tears as I hear what he says over the extension. Then, quite miraculously, really, Howard gathers the strength to say what Jim and I later agree is, “Okay.”

Once his closest family have had a chance to speak to him, there is really nothing more for me to do but try to administer his medication and wait. He hasn’t lost the ability to swallow yet, so I am able to give him his liquid medication. I do my best to make him comfortable and wait. I’m restless.

I talk to Antonio on the 28th and he tells me he’s coming over to do ceremony. He and his wife, Helena, come. I welcome their calm strength. Even though I’m a strong woman myself, I can stand outside myself just long enough to realize that the one leg I always have in the other realms, as the shaman I am, has actually pulled more of me into those realms than the part of me that is on this side. I’m unbalanced, too much in an altered state and too little grounded. Ceremony is actually the best thing for me, whether or not it is something Howard would want if he were lucid enough to state his preferences.

The death ceremony we do is so magical and so what is needed that I’m less restless afterwards, more at peace. [The details of this ceremony can be found in my March 28, 2011 post, titled “Death Ceremony.”]

No more than a couple of hours after they leave, my sister arrives. I make dinner for us and, not long after we sit down to eat, I hear something coming from Howard that I’ve never heard before—a gurgling, gasping frustration. I tear into his room with Maureen on my heels. We get there just in time for me to hold his body up as black ooze issues from his mouth. One eye stares at me and the other has rolled back. He has entered a coma.

Maureen and I clean him up, which takes no small effort. The sheets must be changed, all of his clothes must be swapped out, and his adult diaper must be changed. Mo (the diminutive I’ve long used instead of my sister’s full first name, Maureen) has just arrived to be swept into the most difficult kind of help to provide. I had told her, before she came, that she would have to be tough to manage this. She hasn’t even had dinner before she’s put to the test.

We have to cut off some of his clothes because the combined strength of the two of us is not enough to effectively move him. And I’m not about to call hospice. This is sacred duty; I need to perform it and Mo is willing to join me in it. His clothing is insignificant at this point because he won’t be wearing it again and getting him clean and comfortable is what is needed.

Mo and I struggle so much to get the job done. We take sides on either side of the hospital bed and try to manhandle the sheets and clothes without doing harm to my poor dying husband. Eventually, I look up at her, start to laugh, and tell her we’re like the Keystone Cops. We’re clumsy and incompetent, moving about with too little purpose and using too much effort, but we manage.

When we’ve finished and return to the table, Gretchen Minney calls. She’s just returned from spending time with family out of town and I can hear in her voice that she is jet lagged and weary. She wants to know how Howard is doing and when I tell her, she insists on coming over, even though she’s barely put doen her luggage.

Dinner shifts, becoming almost a celebration. It’s an odd celebration, but it does seem like one. I’ve opened a bottle of champagne. I’ve made a good meal. Gretchen, Mo, and I seem aligned in knowing that Howard is about to break the bonds of human form, step out of his body, and step into the mystery. And that is a very good thing.

Finally, Gretchen leaves and I settle Mo in my bed. The only other option is the bed in the guest room and I’m the only person who should be in that room on death watch. She retires, as do I. I lie awake for a time, listening to Howard’s death rattle. The hospice nurse had prescribed drops that sometime eliminate the sound, which she has told me can be quite disconcerting. The drops have worked until now. And I now understand what she means. I’m too weary and too relieved that the end is near for a mere death rattle to rattle me much. I fall to sleep and sleep like the dead until I awake with a start at around 1:35 a.m.

I look at the clock and realize I’ve missed giving Howard his morphine and Adavan on schedule. Then I realize that the death rattle is gone. I leap from bed, go over to him, and can hear that he is still breathing—softly, gently. I give him a small dose of morphine, thinking that it is probably unnecessary, and I pull up a chair and sit next to him, rooting under his covers to take his hand. It won’t be long now. His breaths are so infrequent that I think he is gone more than once, only to hear him take another breath. His sleep apnea over the preceding several years has, thankfully, prepared me well, and I am not jarred by the sporadic breathing.

I have a headache and after some minutes, I get up to take something for it. The combination of stress and champagne have left me with a head that doesn’t quite feel like my own and it is distracting. I want to be clearly focused.

When I return to the room and wait for the next breath, there isn’t one. He’s gone. I look at the clock and see that it is ten minutes of two and I’m startled by the knowing that he’d awakened me so I wouldn’t miss this moment. He knew I wanted to be there and he woke me up so I could be. What a blessing! I thank him, even though I know he’s not actually there any longer. In fact, he has mostly been gone for days. And the death ceremony had helped the rest of him go.

I think about something he’d said, sometime over the last month. “I don’t think we told each other we love each other enough.”

He was probably right, but we had told one another often enough and we’d shown one another in many ways. And he’d given me this last gift of love—waking me so I wouldn’t miss his death. What is enough when it comes to love? There is never enough when it comes to feeling the love, murmuring the words, acting in love. But I’d come to the knowing, years earlier, that any instant of love is not lost, but reverberates on in the universe—onward, outward, past the farthest reaches.

And I feel it, right then.

And I continue to feel it.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Christmas

December 26, 2011

I was walking on eggshells. I’d been sworn at enough the previous night to make me more than a little careful around my husband. He was dying—days from it at most, as far as I could tell—and he wasn’t himself. But I was weary of being the bad guy. While he had been the quintessential noncompliant patient for some time, I had been the annoying person trying to persuade him to comply, arguing against his attempts at doing things he could no longer do—things that would require me to call for help. I was the annoying person who knew how close to death he was and wouldn’t pretend it wasn’t so. I was the annoying person who was seeing him at his most vulnerable on a daily basis.

My tactic of the day was to walk on eggshells with him. Unfortunately, he was still lucid enough to know that something was off between us. He wanted to know what was wrong. I demurred. He conjectured that I was upset because he wasn’t dead yet.

That was downright cruel. I knew he was close to death and I wanted the release of death for him, but I didn’t feel impatient about it. There had been times over the nearly four years since he’d been fighting the metastasized cancer that I had certainly wondered when it would be over and fantasized it being over. But as his death drew near, I’d felt the sacred quality of it and felt honored to be witness to it. I wanted the release for him, but felt in no hurry for me.

I didn’t feel honored to be on the receiving end of swearing and cruelty, though.

In tears, I told him I couldn’t comply with his wishes to leave the door to his room closed, now that the commode was in it. He looked at me as if completely confused and said, “I don’t understand you at all.” And in that moment, he meant it. In that same moment, I considered the possibility that this statement might be true of the entire relationship between us.

He said he wasn’t hungry, but changed his mind and decided he wanted scrambled eggs. I made the eggs. He pulled himself up in the bed by grabbing onto the covers and ate a bite or two. Then he sat there for a long time, as if he’d forgotten he had a plate of eggs in his lap.

I said, “Your eggs are getting cold, Dear.”

He replied, “Shut the !&%$ up.”

I left the room in tears.

The hospice nurse had asked what we usually did on Christmas and suggested that I follow our traditions, to the extent possible. Not much of what we usually did was actually possible, but it was Christmas Eve and I decided to make a grocery run to buy some of the things we usually had on Christmas morning as we opened gifts: shrimp, caviar, smoked salmon. Against all reason, I also bought a standing rib roast, which I found in the reduced section. We’d often had standing rib roast for Christmas dinner and even though I knew he would not want it—any more than he would want the shrimp, caviar, or smoked salmon—I decided to buy it. At least he would be able to see that I was treating Christmas as I usually did and wasn’t exactly on death watch.

He was quiet that evening. I climbed into bed with him for a bit and lay there, allowing my mind to wander to our life together. Here we were at the end of it. And it was, for the moment, peaceful. I kissed him and told him I loved him when I left the room. And he said, “I love you, Dearie.” That erased any hurt I had sitting in my gut from earlier in the day.

The next morning I came into his room and said (with all the Christmas cheer I could muster), “You made it to Christmas.”

“When was the last time I did that,” he replied.

I could have taken it as just another bit of wry humor from him, but he had said it wistfully and a few days earlier, he had commented that he felt as if he’d been through all of this—this process of dying, in this body—before. I had suggested that he was describing déjà vu and he allowed that it might just be that. I’d told him I had a couple of theories about déjà vu and asked if he wanted to hear them. Surprisingly, he did.

I suggested that he might have planned all of this before he came into this body and that he was experiencing what he had planned out. An alternative theory was that he was leaving his body some of the time and coming back in (something I knew, in fact, was happening), so he was sometimes watching himself from outside his body.

I might have proposed other theories—I had them—but left it at that. He had little to say but seemed to be considering what I’d said.

I brought out our usual Christmas fare, though he had little interest in eating any of it. He seemed to like the smoked salmon more than anything else, but that only meant he had three bites of it to the one nibble of shrimp and no nibbles of the caviar. Nothing had tasted right to him for months, and over the past week he had eaten and drunk so little, I knew he was edging closer and closer to death.

I brought the few gifts to be unwrapped—all for me because everyone finally understood that he wouldn’t be around to use anything they would give—and opened them on the bed, commenting on each. He could barely stay awake for it, but he made an attempt and managed it, just barely.

He slept most of the rest of the day, though his sleeping was interrupted at least once by an attempt on his part to leave the bed to make his way down the hall to the bathroom. I could not let him even try at this point. I told him that if he needed to go to the bathroom, he had to use the commode. He objected. I pressed. He objected. I finally told him that if he made an attempt to get to the hallway bathroom, I would pick up the phone and call hospice or go next door to ask for help because I knew he would not be able to make it there and back and I was smart enough to know that I could not restrain him. I knew he was royally pissed about this and told him that I couldn’t let him hurt himself, that I was not his enemy. He insisted that I was his enemy and I told him that he would rethink this position at some point. What I didn’t say was that he might rethink it once he was on the other side and had some perspective.

His body was fading and his mind was fading with it. One moment he was sweet and peaceful; another he was irrational, agitated, and angry. He seemed to be losing sight and hearing, too, and I was unable to tell how much of his behavior had to do with what must be the alarming fading of these senses and how much had to do with the malfunctioning of his mind. But I did know that his mind was abandoning him rapidly.

Christmas night he struggled to the commode and was on it for an hour, then two hours more a little later. He now had no energy to lift himself from it and slide back onto the bed. I attempted to help him, against his wishes, and failed. I knew I couldn’t leave him there all night. I had not option but to call hospice. He sat on the commode babbling, “Blueberries, blueberries, blueberries.” I wondered if his mind had left him completely or if he was trying to avoid swearing. It was frightening to see this brilliant, virile man in this condition—even though I’d been present during the entire downward slide.

Kristen, the hospice angel of a nurse on call on Christmas night, came from the other end of the metro area. Together, we managed to get him settled.

He was not only on morphine at this point, he was on Adavan, a drug meant to reduce anxiety and/or depression, often prescribed to people who are at the end stages of dying. I had come to understand, both from my online research and from my conversations with his hospice nurse, that patients who are dying are often restless and disoriented. Adavan helped with that.

But what I was experiencing with my husband had been confusing over the past week or so. According to what I’d read, there was a pre-active phase of dying and an active phase of dying. The former could last a couple of weeks, while the latter tended to last three days or so. These were, of course, averages. I’d seen his lower legs and feet swollen (pre-active phase) and blue (active phase) one day, then fine the next. It was crazy making. He had the restlessness and confusion of the pre-active phase, along with prolonged periods of sleep, overall withdrawal, coolness of skin, decreased intake of food and liquids, and comments that suggested to me he was trying to resolve anything unresolved between us. But he had been lucid most of the time and had not shown other signs of being in the active dying phase . . . for the most part. He was becoming incoherent, was losing his physical senses, and was—the shaman in me saw—mostly gone.

Sometime earlier, I’d intuited that he would be gone by Christmas. It hadn’t occurred to me that his essential nature would be mostly gone by then, but his body would still be with me.

Yet, I knew time was very short.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Best Friend

December 18, 2011

There was one person Howard hadn’t seen in some time and wanted to see before he died: Pete. For many years, Howard had considered Pete his best friend. They were both former Marines, they’d been cops together during the early Lakewood days, they’d been to Kosovo and Iraq at the same time—but the friendship wasn’t just about those shared “tough guy” experiences.

Long before I knew Howard, he and Pete had gone to the Santa Fe Opera together. They’d donned tuxedos and were, no doubt, on the prowl . . . and I’m sure they made quite an impression on the ladies. Howard had stood up for Pete when he married the second time around and Pete was Howard’s confidant to the extent that Howard allowed himself to have one (apart from me) at all. Pete could hold his own in almost any conversation with Howard and they were both dedicated to a code of integrity and service. In other words, they were close. And Pete was one of the first people Howard introduced me to when we slid down that slope from friends to lovers. My acceptance of Pete and his acceptance of me were that important to Howard.

Howard and I had spent some lovely times with Pete and his wife Kim, but for the most part, the men got together without their wives—usually for a beer and a chat. But that changed somewhat when Pete began working outside the metro area, up in Chaffee County. It changed even more when Pete switched political party affiliations and decided to run for sheriff. The political shift was inexplicable to Howard, a committed Republican (juxtaposed against my own committed position as an Independent). The decision to run for sheriff was, in his mind, ill advised. He saw his friend as too innocent to last in politics and too upright and honest to be able to stomach it for long. He couldn’t support his friend’s political ambitions and his friend was immersed in them.

As with everyone else, Howard had done his best to hide his declining health from Pete. The two hadn’t seen one another for months. Howard was hurt to the core, but too stubborn to do anything about it. I suspected Pete was the same. I doubted Pete understood just how close Howard was to death and I knew, in my own core, that if they didn’t see one another before he died, Howard would die unsettled about it and Pete would regret it.

After an aborted attempt to reach him Thanksgiving weekend, I let the matter sit for a while, hoping that word would get to Pete about Howard’s condition and he would come by. When we didn’t hear from him, I took matters into my own hands and called Kim at work. I might have begun the conversation calmly, but if so, it lasted for no longer than a few seconds. I was desperate to get them together and had to choke back sobs just to talk. I explained how little time Howard had and how much I knew he wanted to see Pete. I admitted that I knew Howard was hurt by Pete’s lack of contact and said that I suspected Pete was hurt by Howard’s lack of support. And, as usual, unable to do anything but tell the truth as I saw it, I suggested that they both had more pride than brains. Kim agreed.

Pete called sometime thereafter and made plans to come for a visit. I made him promise not to tell Howard that I had instigated it. Pete came, pulled up a chair next to the bed, and the men chatted as if only days—not months—had gone by since they’d seen one another.

Something lifted in my heart with that visit. I knew that Howard would die easier, thanks to that visit.

Before he left, Pete asked Howard if he could come by again. Howard encouraged him to do so, and as I walked Pete out to his car, I encouraged him to do so, too. But I doubted there was time for another visit before Howard died.

Before the visit, Howard had wondered aloud why Pete had decided to come. He asked if I had a sense of it. I lied as convincingly as I could, knowing that the truth would be known to Howard soon enough, once he’d died and had the broader view from the other side. I believed it would be important to Howard for Pete to come of his own accord, as opposed to coming because I—the wife of the soon-to-be-deceased—had implored him. He needed to know that Pete really did give a damn. So I offered a conjecture or two, but kept the truth to myself.

After the visit, Howard’s musings turned to the reasons for Pete’s asking if he could visit again. “All these years . . . neither of us ever asked a question like that. We knew we didn’t have to ask,” he said. He was perplexed. Why would Pete ask?

Of course, the two hadn’t really addressed the rift between them during the visit. They hadn’t gotten any cards on the table. So Howard was left wondering. Did Pete think Howard was still annoyed with him? Did Pete think Howard would fear he, Pete, was still annoyed? In Howard’s mind, the chat itself should have answered any such concern and should have answered Pete’s question without his ever having to ask it. They were buddies; no need to ask if he could come by again.

He might have been perplexed by Pete’s question, but he was pleased that Pete had come to see him. And maybe I was imagining it, but it seemed to me that something lifted in Howard’s heart, too, because of that visit. There were few things he seemed to need to have resolved before he left, but this was an important one. It was as resolved as it was going to be and he was more at peace. That was enough for me.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall