Posts Tagged ‘hospice’

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

Drama Everywhere

December 25, 2011

“I wonder why I’m sleeping so much,” he said, as if he truly didn’t understand it.

I reply, “Your body is shutting down. So you sleep. Your metabolism has changed.”

Of course, the fact that he was on a low dose of morphine administered more than once a day had something to do with it, too, but I didn’t point that out. I had said, “Your body is shutting down,” and not, “You’re dying.” We both knew he was dying. I’d been more willing to say it than him, but I didn’t need to say it again.

His hospice nurse thought that this comment was meant to prepare me for his death. I almost snorted at that. I’d been prepared for his death for some time; he hadn’t been. He understood he was dying at this point, but he didn’t seem to understand that he might not just go from being lucid and vital to dying in an instant, that, instead, his body might shut down slowly.

On December 23rd, he asked what day it was and I said, “It’s Mom’s—my Mom’s—birthday, December 23rd. My mother had been gone since 1995, but I always remembered her birthday.

I was taken aback when he replied, “Do you want me to die on your mother’s birthday?”

“Well, that’s up to you,” I said. “And I think of death as more like graduation.”

And it was time for him to graduate. He was fading. He was now attempting to use the commode instead of fighting his way to the bathroom, but whatever in him still held on to some sense of personal dignity inhibited him. He was having trouble managing the pull-ups and I’d had to change the sheets in between hospice visits. He couldn’t bathe himself but wouldn’t let anyone else bathe him, either. The previous day, I had managed to get his bed in order and had given him some clean clothes, but after undressing and struggling with the pull-ups, he’d accidentally put the dirty clothes back on. He had spent his limited supply of energy and had just gone back to sleep in his dirty clothes.

Later, he awoke and said, “I think I’ll take a shower today.”

I’d thought that we were past that. There was no way he could make the short trip from the guest bedroom, down the hall, into the master bedroom, and into the shower. He barely had enough strength to sit up. Yet he believed he could do it with my help. My help? When he went down—and he would surely go down—he would go down like an ancient tree and would take me with him.

I reminded him of the debacle some days earlier. He’d insisted on taking a shower and was going to struggle his way to it. I’d at least convinced him to wait for the hospice nurse to help him. I’d actually thought she would talk him out of it, but he was determined and she was willing to stick with him until he demonstrated to himself that he couldn’t manage it. His oxygen tank in tow, he’d managed to make his way to the master bath. It had probably taken forty-five minutes to an hour to get that far. But he couldn’t actually get into the shower. He sat, defeated, on the toilet and allowed the nurse to at least wash his torso and legs. Then it was a very long struggle back to the bed.

But when I mentioned that event, his reply was, “I did shower.” I reminded him of what had transpired and his faulty cognitive function kicked into high gear and brought back enough of the affair for him to recall that he hadn’t actually gotten into the shower that day. “She kept saying, ‘You don’t have to do this,’” he said, “so I eventually let her do it.”

Let her wash him, he meant—something he could scarce imagine.

He slept most of the day on the 23rd. I had a hair appointment I badly needed to keep, but I thought I would have to cancel it because I could not leave Howard alone at all at this point. But Cindy Morris made keeping my appointment possible. She agreed to come and keep an eye on Howard. I asked her to just sit in the dining room, facing the closed door to the guest room, and stop Howard if he tried to leave the room. He couldn’t make it the bathroom any longer but frequently forgot that fact and would attempt to get up to make the trip. He needed to be protected from himself and she had the grit to agree to be his protector, even if for only an hour and a half or so. It was hugely courageous and an equally huge gift to me.

When I got back home, I heated up some homemade soup for the two of us. She’d brought some vegetables and a small dessert to go with it. We were eating and chatting when I realized, with a start, that I hadn’t given Howard his morphine on schedule. I left the table and went into his room. Unfortunately, he had made his way from the bed to the commode and barked at me when I opened the door. He might be dying, but he still wanted complete privacy when it came to the commode. I backed up and went back to the table.

We had the monitor on the table with us and could hear him straining and in discomfort. Was he trying to get back to bed? Was he struggling with the pull-ups? I couldn’t quite decipher what he was doing from the sound. After a time, I went back to the room. He was still on the commode. This time he didn’t just bark, he swore at me. In fact, we could hear the “God damn you, Melanie,” over the monitor as he continued to swear at me after I left him alone and was back at the table. More time elapsed. I was worried about him. This time I knocked. More swearing.

Cindy was a trooper. She just took it in stride. I was concerned about Howard, and I made every attempt not to take his swearing at me personally. He was dying. He was losing cognitive functioning and what cognitive ability he had left was very annoyed by his failing body and the fact that he couldn’t hide the fact that his body was failing.

Once dinner was over and we’d chatted for a time—our talk punctuated by Howard’s swearing, as heard over the monitor—she’d had enough and was ready to leave. But just as she was getting ready to go, an ambulance came down the street in front of my house, lights flashing. It swung off E. 3rd and onto Bellaire, the cul-de-sac my house sat next to. More emergency vehicles followed. They all pulled up to a house in the middle of the street. While we didn’t know the couple living in the house, we’d seen the man who lived there many times, attending to his yard and sitting in a chair, just inside his garage, watching the neighborhood.

Cindy stayed. We looked out the back door and talked about what we’d done as children when emergency trucks pulled into the neighborhood. She’d grown up in the Bronx; I’d grown up in small towns in the Midwest. But it seems that the response was universal, at least when we were growing up. We would stop whatever we were doing and either peek out our windows or go outdoors for a good view of the activity. Life drama, right in front of us, had been more compelling that eating, sleeping, television, work, or anything else. Everyone we knew when we were growing up came to a stop when emergency vehicles were anywhere nearby. The girl from the Bronx and the girl from the Midwest still did.

Someone was brought out on a stretcher, but it was difficult to tell for sure if it was a man or a woman. Someone was ill or injured bad enough for an ambulance to have been called. Could someone be dying across the street? What were the chances of two people on the same block dying—or close to it—at the same time? Everything in my life had become a bit surrealistic, but this sent my mind sliding off the edge.

And then I had a moment of complete clarity. I had been so focused on my little patch of earth at 1093 E. 3rd Ave. and the drama in my own home for so long, I’d lost perspective, lost the understanding that drama was happening elsewhere—often nearby—all the time. It hit me in the gut, moved up to my brain, then settled in my heart: At any given time, there are people within a block of me enduring one drama or another. Someone might be dying. Another might be grieving a death. A third might be suffering a serious illness or suffering through a divorce. Someone else might be in the deep well of chronic depression. One of these people might share their suffering with me but most wouldn’t. I didn’t even know most of the people who lived nearby. But I understood, in one flash that moved through my system like an electrical charge and settled in my heart, that there was now and always would be suffering around me.

I was changed by it. There was something utterly tragic about it and, at the same time, there was something comforting about the fact that others were sharing this aspect of the human condition. I was appalled by the fact that any part of the knowing gave me comfort and was stricken with sadness by the thought that there would always be others nearby suffering. My heart constricted in pain. And then it opened a little wider than it had been before—to take it all in and make a home for it.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Sacred Space

December 7, 2011

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

Specters and Human Angels

November 27, 2011

Sometimes when Howard slept, I could sense that much of his essential nature—his soul, if you will—slipped out of him and stayed out until he awoke again. One evening, the sense of it was so powerful, I felt he was already gone, already dead, even as he lay sleeping in the next room.

Late in November, I awoke in the middle of the night and sensed that the entire upper level of the house, the bedroom level, was filled with spirits. I could identify some: my council of guides, my mother, what I sensed were his guides and some of his ancestors. Others I could not identify. These specters returned, again and again, over the coming weeks. When I first sensed my father, I was surprised. While my mother had adored Howard (and he her), my father had died long before Howard and I met. They hadn’t known one another. Then I realized the sense to it. Like Howard, my father had been in the military. Like Howard, he had been an intellectual and a writer. Like Howard, he’d enjoyed chess. Of course he was there. They were going to be great friends on the other side. I was eventually able to discern what I thought were Howard’s parents and his cousin Jack among the ghostly visitors. It was comforting, and it was also telling. I knew that they were all there to help him with the process of leaving his body.

I was happy to take comfort in whatever form it came. After years of bucking up, I cried every day, multiple times a day. I mostly kept it from Howard, but not always. He didn’t question it. He knew his time was short. Some nights, I crept into bed with him, put my arms around him, and just lay with him. Sometimes we talked; other times we just soaked up one another’s presence. And sometimes we wept together. Those were sweet times, those nights. There was a deeper level of intimacy than we’d had in years—maybe a deeper level of intimacy than we’d ever had. It wasn’t about words and it wasn’t even really about physical proximity. It was about the partnership, the unstated contract between us to be partners during this pilgrimage to his death. The unstated understanding that we were what we had been saying for years: best friends. And best friends sometimes just witnessed one another’s lives. I was his witness.

He slept most of the day every day. He could no longer get up and down the few stairs from the bedroom level to the living level without a struggle. He only struggled to do so once or twice a day, mostly to get to the kitchen. I was happy to bring food to him, but he needed to demonstrate to himself that he could still make the stairs. He made one effort to sit in the living room, then asked for a chair in the bedroom. Antonio helped me move a comfortable one from the journey room (the room in which I did shamanic work with people) in the lowest level of the house up to his room. He used it only a few times, but just having it there made him happy.

Everything was beginning to make me nostalgic. I turned on the television to find an episode of Globe Trekker on Fiji. We had been married in Fiji. Another day, the movie When Harry Met Sally was on. I smiled and cried because it was one of many movies he liked a good deal. And while Howard often referred to the house as my house—an accusation more than anything else that I’d arranged it according to my own tastes and needs—everywhere I looked in it, I was reminded of Howard and our life together. It was as if he were already gone. And in some ways, he was. He was slipping further away from me every day.

Yet, a few days after Thanksgiving, he asked if we were going to see the new Harry Potter movie. He had almost died days earlier and he was completely unable to get down the series of stairs that led outside. Still, he seemed to have told himself that he could do this. When I finally got ready to return the borrowed oxygen tank to the cancer center, he said, “I’d like to go with you.” Again, it was a physical impossibility for him. Did he sense that he would never again see the nurses and doctors who had been so kind to him? Perhaps, though it did not occur to me at the time. What did occur to me was that he was becoming farther and farther removed, mentally, from his physical reality. Getting to the bathroom was a major undertaking. Leaving the house? No chance.

Finally, in the last days of November, he agreed to hospice. But even here, he insisted on doing it his way. He slept until he had just enough time to get himself up and together before they came to the house to meet with us. He dragged himself to the shower, dressed, and struggled his way downstairs to the dining room because he did not want them to see him as an invalid. He did not want hospice to see him as an invalid.

The meeting was a negotiation. The hospice staff quickly determined what he was made of and that he would need more than their respect, he would need their agreement to participate in the hallucination that he was not the dying man they saw before them. They stepped up. They’d done this before. He had feared that bringing in hospice meant he would no longer have access to blood transfusions. I knew that he’d already had the last one he would need in this life, but it was an important consideration in his mind. They assured him that it was not beyond the realm of possibilities and that it could, in fact, be done at home.

At one point, during the discussion with hospice, he said, “Maybe I’ll just disappear . . . leave the house, drive away, and not come back.” It was a threat. He wanted them to know that he was still in charge. He wanted them to know he’d already had enough of his body betraying him, before signing on with them, and he didn’t want nonsense from them (or me).

Of course, he would have needed me and a couple of strong men to get him downstairs, outside, and into his truck by this point. Still, I had no doubt he could still drive if he could be helped to his truck. Where would he drive to? No question about that. He would be off on another adventure. Maybe the trip to Alaska he’d been sorry to have never made. No Thelma and Louise action from him. Never.

Unbeknownst to him, hospice and the nightly cadre of spirits were preparing him for his next adventure. No escaping to have an adventure on his own. Not this time.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Death Ceremony

March 28, 2011

He wasn’t leaving. Always a man who lived by his own rules and always a warrior, he had been thumbing his nose at death for almost four years. It seemed that he was not about to change his modus operandi now, even though he was nearing the end of the dying process.

But he was more shell than human at this point and all I could do was attend to his needs . . . and love him. I had promised no ambulances and no hospitals, and I had, thus far, fulfilled that promise. He was at home, where he wanted to be, and I was happy for both of us that he was. And now it was a death watch.

I’d called my sister in Illinois two days earlier saying, “I give up. Come on out.” She had offered to come to help and was able to do so because the month of December was a slow time for her business as a lobbyist. Until then, I’d managed to carry on with a little help from hospice and a little help from Antonio, the shaman I had once been apprenticed to, who also happened to be a nurse. But after calling hospice for help on Christmas night and after finally surrendering to having a hospital bed—something Howard had refused but which could not be avoided now that he was barely conscious—I surrendered a bit further and asked my sister for help. I was pretty sure she had no idea what she was in for, even though I’d warned her. She was on her way and would arrive within hours.

Antonio had awakened that morning thinking, I have to go to Melanie’s house. There was a sense of urgency to it. He packed up his shamanic tools of the trade, called me to make sure it was okay for him to come, and drove over. His wife Helena was with him and it was a relief to see both of them.

During the long days and nights of what I knew would be Howard’s final moments on Earth, I’d just kept doing what needed to be done, seldom thinking about the fact that I was managing alone. Hospice had been coming every few days for the past month and I was extremely thankful for that, but apart from those visits, I’d been managing on my own. Except for the emergencies. I’d called Antonio more than once when Howard had gotten himself into a fix he couldn’t get himself out of because he kept insisting on doing things he could no longer do, like walk from one room to another.

Now, just having their calm strength with me, I realized that I was more than just a little frayed around the edges. I was beginning to unravel a bit. It hadn’t occurred to me to do shamanic ceremony because Howard shared neither my beliefs nor practices when it came to shamanism. But Antonio had come to do ceremony and not only did it feel fitting and respectful of Howard in that moment, I slowly grasped the fact that my spirit was calling out to me to do ceremony.

Because of Antonio’s support during emergencies, Howard had become comfortable with his presence. In fact, he had come to trust Antonio’s professional assistance more than anyone else’s. But he wasn’t used to having Helena see him so vulnerable and even though he was only marginally conscious, I wanted to honor that, so I asked Helena to wait in the living room while Antonio went in to see Howard. Antonio set up a small altar on the guest room bed that had been abandoned for the past couple of days because Howard had been moved to a hospital bed. I asked him not to use smudge—something that would ordinarily be a part of any ceremony either of us did—because Howard had never been fond of it. So Antonio moved the energy around my husband using only his intent and his feather fan.

Standing at the doorway, I watched as Antonio went to Howard, bent over him, and spoke words that only another man—and only another warrior—could say with any authority. He told Howard that there was a time for fighting and a time to put down one’s arms. He said that Howard could stop fighting now and come to rest. There would be new causes to take up on the other side. I came closer, but Antonio asked for some time alone with Howard and I deferred to him.

I joined Helena in the living room, saw Howard’s Native American flute on the bookshelf, and decided, rather spontaneously, to give it to Helena. Helena played the Native American flute and was, in fact, the only person close to me who did. She was the appropriate person to have it and I knew that Howard would approve. For some reason, it seemed important for her to have it now, not after Howard was gone, so I presented it to her.

And then I realized that Helena was meant to take part in the ceremony. When I returned to the bedroom, I discovered that Antonio had come to the same conclusion at the same time. We called Helena to join us. No ceremony had been planned and there was no real discussion now about what we would do—apart from my new staff playing a role.

I had given Antonio the staff almost two years earlier because I had been told, in meditation, that this was to be the staff I would use in my sixties and that I should give it to Antonio to paint or carve. Time had passed and I had feared I would never see the staff again. Unbeknownst to me, Antonio had, of late, felt compelled to finish the work on it. Only now did he understand why. He’d brought it with him and handed it to me saying that I was to use it for the first time in this ceremony for Howard. I’d had little time to even examine it, but could see that he had painted three small dragons on it, had embedded some stones in the wood, and had decorated it with feathers. It was a beautiful and suitable tool.

I brought the staff with me into the room and felt called to stand at Howard’s head. I set the staff against the wall behind me and could feel it grounding my energy. Antonio stood at Howard’s feet and Helena was to his left. She began to play the flute softly as I bent over my husband, placing one hand on his third eye and the other on his crown chakra. I closed my eyes and . . .

I was immediately in an altered state of consciousness. I found myself on a path, walking with Howard. “You have to go into the light,” I said to him, “and I can’t go with you.” He said nothing as we continued down the path. Then, in front of us, I saw it. Light. A wall of light. A portal comprised of pure, bright light. I pointed to it and told him, “There. There’s the light. That is where you must go.” We came to a stop in front of the light portal and he turned to me. I looked up at him and encouraged him to step into the light, and as I did, he transformed into the man I had known twenty-five years earlier. He was vital and full of life. He swept me up, embraced me, kissed me soundly, and put me back down. “I’m sorry, I can’t go with you,” I said and turned to walk away.

He kept his eyes on me, instead of on the wall of light, and I didn’t get far before stopping because I realized that we still had many, many cords between us, connecting us. They all collapsed in my arms the moment I touched one. An armful of energy, no longer linking us. I tossed them to the side of the path on my left, lifted a hand over them, and watched them burst into flames. Howard looked from me to the burning cords and back again.

With love for him spilling from me—but purer and clearer than it had ever been, now that the cords were gone—I returned his gaze and said, “Don’t they make a beautiful fire?” And with those words came a rush of compassion. For him. For me. For everyone who had ever lived. For everyone who had ever loved.

I turned from him, not wanting to, but knowing that we now had separate paths. I walked back down the path and found myself back in my body. I opened my eyes, looked up at Antonio and Helena, and looked back down at my husband. The self that had walked that path with Howard had known what the self back in the room had not: Howard wasn’t going to leave until I personally walked him to the light . . . and left him there. It had never occurred to me that this would the case. My husband was strong and independent. He didn’t need me to help him leave this life . . . or, perhaps, he did.

Later, after I told Antonio and Helena what I had experienced, Helena gave her own accounting of events.

“After so many years, I’ve come to realize that when you guys [shamans] are doing ceremony, I need to pay careful attention. There’s no telling what might happen. So I watched Antonio, I watched you, and I watched Howard. At one point, when you were bent over him with your eyes closed, his feet began to move. Not just restless moving. They were moving . . . as if he were walking.”

Of course. He’d been with me, walking down that path.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall