We received the call at about noon on Sunday. “I think it’s your father’s time,” the nurse said. “You’d better come now.”
We instructed our two teenaged kids to quickly pack an overnight bag and jumped in the car. The two-hour ride was quieter than any of the many we’d made over the past several months.
When we arrived, Kim was sitting on his bed holding my father-in-law’s hand. She was the nursing assistant we usually interacted with on our visits, the one who spent the most time with him during the day.
“Nick, your family is here,’ she said reassuringly, rubbing his chest. “I’ve been trying to spend as much time as I can with him,” she told us. “So he wouldn’t be alone.” I thought of how the staff here was always in motion, always busy, and my heart swelled to think she would make time to comfort my husband’s father.
She stood to make room for one of us to sit close to him. “I even ate my lunch in here with him.”
I pictured the pretty young woman eating a sandwich at his bedside. Not your typical lunchtime distraction; comforting the dying. Gratitude doesn’t even begin to describe what I felt for this above-and-beyond kindness.
The next several hours were all a blur, with multiple hallway conferences with nurses, the attending physician, the hospice social worker. Everyone here was experienced in the practice of dying, yet I never felt as if they were treating it clinically, callously, without utmost regard to our feelings. Shepherding us through the process seemed as important to them as the palliative care they were offering the patient.
When Jean, the staff social worker, left for the day, she asked if she could pray with us. Many of the staff were upfront about their faith; mentioning how we were in their prayers, how my father-in-law was headed to heaven.
When it grew dark and quiet, my mother-in-law asked about last rites. Being a non-Catholic, I had no idea how this worked. Laura, one of the overnight nurses, came to my rescue. “Call St. Paul’s, it’s right down the street.”
The priest arrived within a half hour, a friendly man with a broad smile and a Caribbean accent. He performed the ritual and then asked us to hold hands and pray together. “You come see me in the next few weeks,” he encouraged my mother-in-law.
We sent the kids to Grandma’s to spend the night. We rearranged the furniture so the recliner would be right next to bed. This way my father-in-law’s wife of fifty-six years, the one who had spent hours with him daily during the last difficult months, could hold his hand through the night as she dozed. My husband and I left to get a few hours sleep. When we came back after daylight, the hospital remained still and quiet.
In the next few hours, as the residents awoke and the staff went about their day-to-day tasks, the bustle of the facility increased. Several nurses came in to console my mother-in-law and offer words of comfort.
When my husband’s father passed away, it was peaceful, his breathing going from rhythmic to softer to a whisper to stillness. Nurses kept coming in, now only to console us, the survivors.
“Our patients become like family to us,” one nurse said. “We have a tradition here where we escort the patient from the building. With your permission, we’d like to do that with your father.” My mother-in-law gave her blessing and the nurse instructed the family to walk right behind the gurney. Dozens of staff fell in behind us and began singing “Amazing Grace.” That song always moves me, but I think there will never be a rendition as touching as that one, on that emotional day.
After the door shut on the hearse we turned to the crowd of workers. They waved and softly called words of comfort. I heard one man say “thank you for allowing us to care for your father.” I wept with gratitude for this caring bunch of folks who propped up my family as we stumbled through the inevitable process of death.
Yes, death is inevitable. There is a movement afoot to change people’s attitude toward dying. Too often death is viewed as medicine’s failure to cure or to extend life, rather than a natural, unavoidable conclusion. This attitude is not confined to doctors, but also to a patient’s family.
As our society has become more fragmented by distance and time pressures, children of elderly parents feel guilt as those parents become fragile and time is suddenly seen as finite. Our culture promotes an attitude of “never give up” and “what more can we do” rather than acceptance of the pre-ordained. Clearly we are throwing medical Hail Marys around, but just because we can, doesn’t necessarily mean we should.
While the idea of hospice has gained widespread acceptance in the past thirty years or so, there is still a great deal of reluctance to accept that it’s time for palliative care for your loved one. What is intended as loving, tender guidance through an inevitable process is seen as giving up; a last resort to be avoided as long as possible.
Most families and patients would benefit greatly from the expert medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support offered by trained professionals with extensive experience in caring for the dying. Yet, the tendency is to keep death at arm’s length, even though we know it is coming. In the not-so-distant past, families lived in close proximity to one another for their entire lives, and they witnessed Grandma’s decline as she grew older. They might have lived under the same roof or at least assisted in her day-to-day care as she dwindled. Death was not necessarily welcomed, but it was viewed as the end of a journey, one factor in the destiny of any family.
Perhaps now we try to prolong life out of guilt; guilt for not spending enough time together, for living so far away. After the dust settles, one may question if extending an aged parent’s life was the right decision. Did we augment the time they had on this earth or just string out a painful, exhaustive process?
I’ve told many of my friends the story of being serenaded by the nursing home staff. Some have been moved to tears; you pretty much have to be made of stone not to be touched by the gesture. What I can’t capture in a few words is the months and months of nurturing, the day-in, day-out, the jokes, the small kindnesses. What I should be telling people is the story of the amazing level of care and mercy given to not only my father-in-law, but to our entire family. I should be encouraging people to accept this outcome when it is first offered, to not try to avoid the inevitable, but to embrace it, accept it, celebrate it, even. And if you’re lucky enough to have Amazing Grace sung to you at the end, then so much the better.
Barbara Brockway’s work has been in publications including Brain, Child Magazine, Seven Hills Review, The Binnacle, Torrid Literature Journal, The Southern Tablet, The Maine Review, and Grand Central Review. She has received awards from WOW-Women On Writing, the Chattahoochee Valley Writers, the Tallahassee Writers Association and the Atlanta Writers Club. She is currently working on her second novel, while seeking an agent for the first. Barbara lives in midtown Atlanta with her family, which includes two chickens and an orange feral cat named Lt. Musgraves.