Death Doesn’t Do Schedules

Late night call

A nurse phoned on the night I came home, letting me know Mom had just died . . .

My father died in early February of 2012. I had visited him five days before, but was not there when Dad died, alone in his bed.

About eighteen months later, in 2013, I was with Mom early in the morning of a hot August day while she lay dying in a convalescent facility. Having been with her for almost a week, I returned home—150 miles south on California’s Highway 99—later on that summer day. I was not with her when she died that night, alone in her bed.

Though my head understands why I was absent when my beloved parents took their last breaths, these are the regrets of my heart.

Dad’s dementia had been going on for years. Even past his ninetieth birthday, his heart was strong. His random, belligerent, disease-inspired actions still intimidated the caregivers at the facility where he lived. Whether a week or a month before he died, no one anticipated his death. Given my mother’s understandable anxiety about finances, we had calculated how much Dad’s care would cost if he lived to 100 years or more. While he didn’t achieve the century mark, we were prepared. How could anyone know that he would die on that mild winter day in California?

Still, regrets. Read More →

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No Perfect Words

Speak Truth

For many future hospice patients, there is a time when life is about to change. And someone needs to say something . . .

A doctor leans forward in her chair. For no reason—other than doing one more thing to avoid speaking—she shifts several thin manila files across her desk. She has done this with only a glance at the files because she was making herself keep eye contact with her patient. The patient hasn’t moved. He sits motionless and upright just like the prior three visits. This gentleman is old enough to be her grandfather. Wearing a wrinkled sports jacket and food-stained tie, he’s overdressed like her Pops would be. Dress nice for the doctor’s office, that’s what her grandfather always advised.

Her patient is a nice man. Always polite. Always with a list of questions. Now, as his oncologist, she knows his most recent test results. What should she say about the final worst thing that will happen in his life when she manages to open her mouth?

Later, the seventy-something man in the wrinkled jacket and stained tie faces his wife. She didn’t go with him to the doctor’s office because she was “under the weather.” As they sit on the couch—the one she’s been negotiating to dump for three years because their cats have shredded the sides—he loosens his tie. They sit angled toward each other, his knee touching her knee. She still wears her house robe and sips the tea he made for her after returning home. It’s chamomile, of course, the same kind of tea she drank on their first date over fifty years ago.

She is his oxygen; his yesterday, today, and tomorrow. They have been through the death of a child and have watched two other children graduate from college and start families. What should be the first thing he says to her that will begin the last thing they will do together? Read More →

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Beware the What-ifs

the what ifs

After a loved one had died, the what-ifs can seem like a weight pressing against our hearts. Won’t they finally lighten as the clock keeps ticking and the calendar pages turn? But what if the what-ifs keep troubling us? They can randomly appear, like odd noises jarring sleepers awake in the depths of night.

What if . . .

  • My husband had quit smoking years before?
  • My wife had gone to the oncologist earlier?
  • I hadn’t given that “last” dose of morphine?
  • You hadn’t flirted with the passenger on the plane?

Are what-ifs like an airborne virus? Mirriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines disease as:

“a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.” [Underlining is mine.]

Grief is not a disease! It’s a normal response to loss for every young and old, outgoing and shy, athletic and geeky, faithful and faithless, clever and awkward, silly and serious, greedy and generous individual. But many aspects of grief impair (or implode) normal functioning. Read More →

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