At a weekly hospice patient care meeting, the medical director shared about a patient longing for one last overnight trip to the family’s mountain cabin. The drive would take a couple of hours from his home to the place the patient’s grandfather had built before World War II.
“I’d like to sit on the front porch again,” the patient had said. “In the early morning, you can always see deer grazing on their way to the lake.” The patient then added, “And there’s a diner not too far away with the world’s best berry pie. I’d like to share a slice with my Annie for old time’s sake.”
Annie was his wife of five decades.
“Would it be okay if we go?”
Our hospice approved, and made sure the family had medication and other key supplies for the quick overnight trip. (He probably would’ve gone regardless of how hospice responded!)
The doctor and nurses conveyed the risks of the overnight trip . . . but they understood the rewards for him. With the help of his adult children, the patient managed a short walk around the cabin after arriving. He played Candyland and Pictionary on the porch with the grandkids. Later, his extended family headed to the locally famous diner, had a simple meal, and ordered the world’s best berry pie for dessert. The patient, hardly eating anymore, managed a single bite. Sweet. They chatted, clinked glasses for a toast, swapped familiar stories; all with a view of the forest through the restaurant’s wide windows. On the drive back to the cabin, in the trembling light of dusk, with the first stars appearing, they spotted a herd of deer. Our patient died in Annie’s arms during the night in the bed his father and grandfather had also slept in.
Within days of that death, the doctor continued, another patient’s daughter visited her mother at our hospice’s in-patient facility. It’s a house located in a suburban neighborhood, boasting six hospital beds, renovated to accommodate the essential medical equipment and staff. Volunteers pop cookies into the oven every day; the fragrance of fresh-baked treats wafts through the house. The living room remains living room-like, furnished in overstuffed sofas and comfortable chairs. A simple chapel anchors one corner.
During the daughter’s visit, she nestled beside her mother on the bed. She embraced her parent’s thin, frail body and whispered I love yous as her mother fell asleep. The mother died a few hours later, supported until her last breath by her daughter’s arms.
The staff silently listened while the doctor spoke. Those two accounts enthralled us because they were as perfect as they were rare. All hospices seek to help someone die without pain, in a comfortable bed, tended by family. We hope the ravages of cancer or cries of anguish won’t be the last thing loved ones remember, instead spending days, weeks or more with “quality time.” But most deaths are far from perfect. The child hurrying from a different city for a final visit may arrive moments after the death. The hale and hearty grandfather abruptly dies. The mother ready for death lingers on and on and on until the family is exhausted from waiting.
As I write this, in a June five years after my father’s death, during a week that includes his birthday and Father’s Day, I know my family didn’t experience a perfect death with Dad. His slow, sad death from dementia made hopes for perfection the worst kind of joke. He would die alone, in a care facility’s sparsely furnished room. When he could still eat, I recall visiting him, sitting around a table with my parents. Mom and I would talk, trying to engage him in a conversation. He’d eat. One bite after another. No smile. No eye contact. No chatting. His eventual death, long delayed, like a harvest left rotting in the field, was a feeble blessing.
From birth to death, we crave perfection. The perfect party. The perfect date. The perfect wedding. The perfect job. Most of our lives are far from perfect. We constantly scramble to make a sip of lemonade from an over-abundance of lemons. Goals are delayed, sidetracked and railroaded. We procrastinate. Or we meet deadlines, only to be told the project no longer matters. At the wrong or worst moment, s**t hits the fan.
These five years since Dad’s death bring this gift, though: the treasure of remembrance. If the last dinners with him were dreary, they were not the only meals. Like a prince gazing at the royal diamonds, I recollect my family around the table, with Dad at the head and Mom serving her famous fried chicken. My sisters are there. We’re all smiling. Dad always asks for seconds. I usually say something stupid and my family laughs at me . . . or maybe with me. Oh, don’t get me wrong, we had our share of awkward meals. Dad might be exhausted from work, Mom could’ve had a crummy day, and one of us kids would be praying no one mentioned our report card.
My memories, the honest ones, aren’t perfect. But they are precious.
I hope, when your loved one is dying, or in the time of grief unfolding after death, that all will be perfect for you. Oh, that everyone could experience a sweet bite of the world’s best pie.
But achieving perfection matters far less than being present with the one who is dying, the one who is grieving. Your time together will likely be messy. Mistakes will be made. Wishes will go unfulfilled. Doubts will rattle you. There will be lonely rooms and empty houses. Time will be a thief. Death will come too soon or not soon enough.
We’re only imperfect humans, seeking to be with and support each other.
Offering our imperfect selves is always one of the best, and most enduring, gifts.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by