Saturday, October 25, 2008

Fairwell to my friends

Today, I could not finish the work laid out for me to do, the usual routine of cleaning the house top to bottom. I couldn't because I was harassed by the urgent feeling of needing to write and I didn't even know what I needed to write about. However, now I know. I needed to say goodbye.

I have recently fallen completely in love with this crotchety old man named Walter. Dear Walter. He is skin and bones and balding, with glasses too large for his face and who insists on wearing his pants up as high as they will go, so that at least two inches of sock shows at his ankles. He is easily irritable and very hard of hearing and I am the only one who is fond of him at all and why, I could not say.

He hates to get up and will literally fight off well intentioned care managers who come to help him prepare for breakfast. He is too weak to take care of himself and must be physically assisted with every small task, even to sit up.

I bent over him and spoke directly into his ear, of the delights of breakfast, of hot coffee and bacon. He was not moved by this, and when I swung his light frame up onto the side of the bed, he hit the covers with his trembling fist.

"I despite this waking up business!" he declared, furious with me. How I laughed, despite myself.

"Me too," I assured him, grinning.

Now when he sees me he smiles his wide, sweet grin; he knows me. Yesterday morning, his hospice care providers came to give him one of the two showers he gets weekly and they did the work of getting him up. I did not see him until breakfast, when I was cleaning the tables. He saw me and his face lit up. In his slow and deliberate voice, he said to me, "Nice to see you!" My heart melted.

How strange to love the elderly, with their crotchety and particular ways, their frail skin like tissue paper, their thin hands and wrinkled faces, but I do. The first day I worked with the elderly, taking the job simply to put myself through school so that I could go back to Japan and teach English, I was moved nearly to tears by the end of the day. It took me so completely by surprise.

I remember my first death. She was a lady gracious in life and, ruined by age and disease, she was gracious even in death. At that point, I was passing medication and each evening I would come to her room to give her the narcotics that allowed her as painless a procession from life as possible. She could not hold herself up, I would sit behind her and lean her body against mine, hold her in my arms so she could drink the water to wash the pills down.

Her body was as frail as a fallen leaf, all the bones shown through, the shape of her skull was shown clearly in her face. At the end, she could no longer even speak. But her eyes shown like pools of clear light. To the end, she knew who she was, where she was and where she was going. Her eyes shown like lighted windows in a ruined building.

Then I worked in the secured unit, where those suffering from advanced dementia and Alzheimer's lived. That was a world unto itself, and a strange, strange world it was. Residents wandered freely from room to room and just as easily in and out of memories and their own realities. They were children again, lost and needy.

Their deaths were usually long, slow processes, as they turned more and more inward. I remember one little old lady, who, toward the end of her life, merely sat. She would sit for hours, not opening her eyes, not responding, not eating. But she would smile still, when touched. Where was she? Where had she gone?

In the end, she just slipped away quietly; I touched her pale and cool skin after she had left, I helped to lay her hands out straight, to close her open mouth by pressure on the jaw. The atmosphere in the room tingled on my skin, I felt the hair on the back of my neck go up, but not in fear. The room was full of unseen presences, the air was golden and heavy with it, despite the night pressing up against the windows. I kissed her forehead and let her go home.

I worked there for over two years, it was my home. There was not a resident there that I had not cared for with my own hands, there was hardly a team member that I had not trained. I knew the resident's histories, their family members, their medications. I worked there on Christmas days, Thanksgivings; I hitched a ride in with a neighbor who had four wheel drive when everyone else was hopelessly snowed in and the evening shift had been trapped there for close to twelve hours.

I coaxed the trembling to eat, I caught the blows of angry, unseeing old men on my shins as I attempted to clean their mess, I strained to lift the fallen from the floor and tape together their torn skin. I tried to listen to those who had lost their language, who spoke in an urgent babble all their own. I absorbed the anger from their helpless family members, who demanded lost sweaters, better food, immediate notification and absolution from grief and guilt.

I wheeled those who had survived the long, dark winter out into the bright courtyard to sit like wilting flowers, drowsy and content, in the warmth of the sun. Doris, who eagerly clutched at my hands and, leaning her head close to mine, would mutter away softly, toothless, wordless, but soft with love and confidence. Dorothy, who kept the unconnected and silent phone contentedly to her ear for hours, notepad and pen beside her, and thus distracted, would not rise and then inevitably fall, due to the deadly combination of weakness and complete ignorance of the fact of it.

Gus, dear Gus, stately and dignified, handsome still even with all the flesh fallen away from the bones of his face, his eyes dark with humor and his beautiful wife who came to sit beside him every day, her hair perfectly done, her dress impeccable, who would coax him to eat, to plead with him to get up, and beg him not to die. Worn down and weary with the long, losing battle against the disease, he would obey as best he could, come out of his silent, still place and take one more bite. The disease had taken everything but this last, enduring recognition of those that needed him and he pitted his last remaining strength to stay for them.

He let go the fight recently, let the last of himself pass away beyond the reach of those that called for him. I wasn't there to see it, I had long ago moved here. Doris passed away when I was close beside her, I was the one that combed her thin and brittle hair one last time, and Dorothy as well. Walter, despite the fact that I ply him with pancakes, hot tea, cookies, fruit and oatmeal, will pass away as well. It is expected; that is why he is on hospice care. More than once I have been asked how I can work in this field and not become depressed and I never know how to answer.

Now it is early afternoon and I have written away most of the morning. The floors have yet to be cleaned and I have still to return library books and go grocery shopping; I am out of the most basic of necessities; milk, coffee and detergent. Life goes on, and it is sweeter and more beautiful when it is carried out in the full acknowledgment of its brevity. I do not simply endure the losses of my occupation, I am deeply grateful for the privilege of ushering those that I have loved out of this life and into the next. Standing so close to the threshold of death, I feel my own life so much more profoundly.

So, thank you, Doris, my sweetie, my stubborn and wordless one, and Gus, my dear sir. It was a pleasure to know you.

2 comments:

T said...

Wow. You, my friend, are absolutely amazing. I'm at a loss for words and tears fill my eyes. If only we could all love like this. All the time. Beautiful post.

Brandi said...

It is because of people like you that Private Ryan's grandparents received such great care in their recent battle with cancer. Private Ryan's poor grandfather lost his battle, it was terribly sad to see such a strong man waste away, and we lost him in the fall of last year.

Private Ryan's grandmother is our miracle. Diagnosed with the same cancer that took her husband (of some sixty years, I think) from her, she was close to death herself. By Thanksgiving she was on morphine around the clock and barely moving ... But because of people like you in the Hospice world who actually care about their patients, She is alive and perhaps better than ever. She recently "graduated" from Hospice care and is now back to walking, talking, and eating like the rest of us. We will treasure the next few years with her. Thank you for your service to the ancestors of the next generation.