Francie checks the time and announces, “3:00. Deb’s coming on duty, and all is well.”
The rhythm of our Muirfield life is governed by Mom’s daily status, meal times, Jeopardy, and nursing shift changes. Within our green-carpeted cocoon, we are blessed with a rotating schedule of competent, caring aides and nurses guided by their mission to keep Mom comfortable. Tiny Carole with close-cropped curly hair and her love of animals. Affectionate, kind-hearted Megan who weeps to see Mom suffering on bad days. And Deb, with her wavy, long, blond hair and artfully made-up almond eyes, our friend and Mom’s particular champion.
After being here three weeks or so, Mom asked for Hospice, believing the organization would send angels of death who would help her cross over more quickly. Not the case we learn, but dear Dan, a social worker, and sweet Jess, the team nurse, prove additional advocates for Mom’s comfort and eventual release.
Most surprising, according to Dr. Spitzer who has seen her scans, Mom has experienced minimal pain. This has frustrated her as she sees pain as the means to more morphine, and morphine as her ticket out. While she encouraged my father to lie about pain levels to win increased doses when he was dying, she cannot bring herself to do so. Then, during a recent phone call to a childhood friend, she was chatty and cheerful while reporting, “The pain came – as wanted – this morning.” She felt her request for a boost in morphine was legitimate when Jess checked in that day.
Jess has fair skin and auburn hair. She recently lost her grandmother, and her green eyes bathe us in empathy, coloring her care for Mom and for us. Since we told her Mom is hard of hearing, she leans as far over the bed as she can when she talks to her. “Mimi? Can you hear me? It’s Jess. I heard you had some pain today. We’ll adjust your morphine and maybe get you a gel mattress? I’ll make sure you’re as comfortable as possible.”
Jess also repeats what Dan and Dr. Spitzer have made clear to Mom before. “You are in charge, Mimi. You can eat whatever you want. We can bring in music or arrange a massage. You can also choose to refuse food and drink. Everything is up to you.” These people are a gift to give Mom a sense of power when so little power remains.
My sisters and I follow Jess out to the hall where we run into Dr. Spitzer. The two confer about Mom’s condition and the increase in dosage. Deb happens down the hall in the course of her rounds and joins our huddle. Unlike Jess, Deb has been with us during Mom’s bad days. She has seen her eyes squeezed shut, jaw clenched, as she’s fought to stay stock-still to quell nausea and vertigo. “She’s anxious,” Deb says. “Attavan would ease that.” There’s discussion, note-taking, and general agreement. When Deb is on duty, all is well.
* * *
Mom’s not ready to refuse meals, and at Muirfield, that would be hard to do. The food is amazing. Each morning, she receives three-page menus for the following day. One of us reads them aloud, and, while it’s Mom choice, we all voice opinions. Tomato aspic with a dollop of mayo is a given, for lunch and dinner. Mom loves it and doesn’t have to share; certainly no one else is seeking bites. Beyond that, hmmm. A group effort. Chicken crepes with champagne mushroom sauce or curried lamb? A side salad of mandarin oranges, walnuts, bibb lettuce and bleu cheese? Oooh… fried oysters! I love them! Add that. Francie lingers over the thought of edamame. Yes. Add that too.
When the tray arrives the next night, heavy with Mom’s choices and our additions, Mom’s appetite is robust… and she eats it all. Oh. Well, that’s okay! That’s great. Glad she enjoyed them.
Deb checks in soon after and with glee we report Mom’s clean plate. “She even finished off a few tidbits we’d hoped for!”
“Like what?” Deb asks, and we tell her.
She chuckles, checks Mom’s vitals, and leaves. Ten minutes later she returns with a hot platter piled high with fried oysters and edamame. “You know I’ll take care of you,” she says with a smile.
We feel it so fully, from Deb and the others. They minister to Mom with medical skills and gentle strength, respecting her dignity, moving her carefully when she’s too weak or too sick, cheering her on when she feels well, easing her way when that time has passed. And through the weeks, they look after us too. With hugs, information, humor, and sympathy. With a gentle hand on the shoulder, a tissue when needed…. And even with oysters and edamame.
* * *
At the end of each day, the too-small wastebaskets overflow with wadded tissues, empty seltzer cans, and cups. The TV blathers in the background because we are waiting to watch Jeopardy, but the news is our pre-game penalty. The anchors report on the world’s torments – an earthquake in Taiwan, Senate budget battles, local and national shootings, Trump’s jealous Tweets when the Eagles get a parade while his remains uncertain – and we wail at Mom to please turn it off. We, her aging daughters, whine that we don’t want to watch this toxic stuff. She gets to leave all this poison behind soon, and we’ll be stuck with it. Mom remains firm, “I want to watch.”
Francie and Mom are Jeopardy regulars and at 7:00 PM, they lean forward as if at a starting gate. Mom squints in concentration. Francie nails a lot of answers and never forgets to frame them as questions. I rarely know anything and on the rare occasion I do, (so pleased and proud!) I forget the question format and am chastised for leaping in and doing it wrong. Ah, well.
After Jeopardy, we help Mom settle down for bed. She takes out her hearing aids, “my ears”, removes her headband, and places it on the bedside table within easy reach. We turn out the lights, kiss her goodnight and then two of us head out, never sure of what the morning will bring. My sisters and I have started to take shifts for early morning, and in the late evening, we take turns waiting for one of our night angels, Amina or Abby.
Mom has insisted that we go home and get some sleep, and to allow that, Muirfield has set us up with these extraordinary women. Kind, gentle, and respectful, both come to care deeply for Mom… and, it seems, for the three of us too.
When I have the late shift, I linger to chat with whichever aide arrives. Both are in their late twenties. Abby is slender, studious, and soft-spoken with the lilt of the islands. When I am not distracting her with whispered conversation, she hunches over her school books by the dim light from the partially open bathroom door in order to study for her courses in nursing. Several times during the day when my sisters and I are on our way to the cafeteria for lunch, we’ve run into Abby in the hall caring for other patients even after she’s spent the night with Mom. “Omigod! You’re still here! When do you sleep?” we exclaim.
She smiles and says, “I’m fine. I’ll make it up when I can.”
On top of school and shifts at Muirfield, she’s a single mother who is deeply grateful for her mom’s help in babysitting for her young son. We share pictures of our children and little Paul. I have also shown her, and the nurses we are close to, pictures of Mom in her youth and even a few from Christmas when Mom seemed well and none of us could have imagined what was ahead. As much as they have witnessed Mom’s grace and courage, I want them to have a sense of her as a vibrant, active person with a life beyond these walls.
With her streaked blond hair, vests, and slim-fit jeans, Amina is stylish, feisty, and funny. She has strong opinions and a strong body, which is crucial as Mom grows weaker. And thanks to Abby and Amina, I feel I can go home to bed at 638.
On the nights when Dave stays in Easton, Francie and Matt have urged me to stay in their snug guest room with its mermaid posters and Disney decorations. The bed there is irresistibly cozy with an electric blanket and innumerable pillows. The adjacent bathroom would be all mine… and I love staying there. But I know my nights at 638 are coming to an end. It’s home, and I want to stay there while I can.
It is well after dark when I pull in, driving over the sinuous black shadows of the limbs of the copper beech, the centuries-old tree that stands guard over the house. I park, then head back to the tree, stepping gingerly to avoid the expansive root system that stretches through the soil behind the house, breaking through the surface like dinosaur toes.
I spread my arms wide to embrace the trunk, laying my cheek against smooth, cold elephant skin. “I love you copper beech,” I whisper, as I have so many times before. “I hope the next family loves you as much….” Tears spill over and I wish I could feel a tremble of response, or attribute the rustle of leaves to something more than a passing breeze. Oh, I will miss the refuge of this house and the protection of this massive being.
But, I am grateful… for everything. Mom’s wonderful, long life and my own. My father. My sisters who have shared that life and shouldered this painful time with me. This house and this tree. My Dave and our kids. For Deb, Megan, Carole, and Dr. Spitzer who have blessed us all with their care and compassion through this final wait with Mom.