I sat with my hospice patient yesterday. There is no typical visit between us, but events might include any of the following: An energetic greeting followed by a short, confused chat, as my patient tries to recall who I am; I play music to spark memory; We hold hands and watch TV together. But it didn’t go like that yesterday.
Maybe it was something about my patient’s whispering, though fast asleep, and the fingers nervously clutching and unclutching the top of the blanket, that undid me. It reminded me of my nephew Drew, who died of liver disease eleven years ago, in hospice. I smiled at my memories of him: Baby Drew running down the hallway to avoid a diaper change. Drew at Santa’s Village coming down a slide with Aunt KK, mouth open and arms wide. Drew, at his wedding, face red from champagne.
I looked back at my patient, now sleeping soundly, fingers quiet. “Drew is why I’m here.” I said, smoothing the blanket. I thought about the patience it takes to lie in that bed, moving seamlessly in and out of sleep, then waking to reality. I thought about the grace of dementia.
It takes fortitude to do this job, to sit with the dying, and the rewards that are always there: The aging dog who refuses to leave the patient’s side; a patient retelling a funny story from his youth that makes you throw your head back and guffaw; the relief in a spouse’s face who can now leave the house to get groceries or go on a walk.
I thought back to that phone call eleven years ago, right before spring break, with Margery sobbing on the phone. I had known Drew was not doing well, had been drinking too much, but I never expected this.
“Drew’s in hospice. Can you come?” I remember my speechlessness, the panic. The cancelling of vacation plans. Scrambling to catch the next plane to Phoenix. Drew was only 39.
Losing anyone you love is difficult, but when death comes to your child, the pain is unspeakable. There are no words. It takes years to manage the shock of it. I thought back to my baby daughter’s death. Now Margery and I were about to share this horrific bond.
I spent my spring break at Drew’s bedside, the guilt of not having connected more frequently with him, a hot coal in my chest. What kind of an auntie was I? Margery sat at his bedside, pen poised over a stack of thank you cards as Drew dictated messages to loved ones. He managed to make us all laugh, his chuckle a jewel in that room of sadness.
We discussed the bland decorative choices in hospitals and the convenience of get-your-own hot blankets; the turban his favorite nurse wore and the Reiki sessions she offered; the weather and the smell of mesquite trees in the blistering sun.
Once, when we were alone, Drew began to cry. “I’m scared.” He brushed at his tears as I handed him a tissue.
“I think that’s a pretty normal response. Want to talk about it?”
Drew nodded and exhaled. “Do you believe in an afterlife? I mean is this it – or do we all get together again someday?”
“You mean like a big party?” He laughed, then his face turned serious. He wanted an answer. “Ok, yes. I believe in an afterlife but I do not believe in Hell. You?”
“Well, your afterlife sounds way better than mine. I’m frightened I’m going to be punished.”
“You? The one who makes everyone laugh – the kindhearted guy who makes girls swoon? The musician with the golden voice? Nah. More likely you get a medal for sweetness, buddy. Besides. Hell was created to keep people in line. Didn’t you get that email?” Just then the nurse came in and Drew sniffed.
“Everything okay in here?” she asked as she pulled on the privacy curtain, nodding that it was time for me to scoot away from the bed.
That evening he was surrounded by family. He was loved, and he knew it. When the time came for me to return home, I handed him a single red rose. As I leaned over to hug him goodbye, he whispered, “I would have done things differently, if I’d known that alcohol could kill you at 39.” His words crushed the air from my lungs. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay to the end.
Three days after my return home I received a letter postmarked Phoenix, AZ. It was lumpy. I dropped onto the couch, the envelope shaking in my hand. Drew had died the day after I had left, and here I was holding a letter from him, as if he were still alive. I could imagine his dark hair combed back like James Dean, a cigarette in his lips, squinting through the smoke to write this letter.
Ripping it open, there was my red rose inside, now pressed. its petals still soft but browning at the edges. And there was a note:
Thank you, Vanya, for being here and laughing at my dumb jokes and mostly for asking questions about the stuff nobody wants to talk about. It helped.
The sound of branches tapping at the window brought me back to my patient, who brightened with a toothy smile as I called out, “Well hello! How are you today?” I shook Drew’s face from my memory and smiled. “Would you like to hear something from For Whom the Bell Tolls? I reached for the book and began to read aloud.