My Lovely Wife and I have been spending the past week or so wandering along the borders of that familiar, yet foreign, country called Death and rediscovering its unique topography.
These trips are seldom planned, so when we heard that MLW’s 85-year-old mother had fallen and had been taken to a nearby emergency room, we set out with the idea that we’d pick her up, dust her off, bring her back home, and get on with our weekend. It’s not like she hadn’t fallen before. We soon learned, however, that she’d suffered a stroke and had extensive bleeding on the brain. The prognosis was not good; her doctor told us, quite candidly, that she would not recover.
Shirley had put together a healthcare directive years earlier, so there was no question about heroic measures and no wrenching family debates about feeding tubes and respirators for an independent and loquacious matriarch who quite suddenly could not speak. That was the good news. The bad news was that she wasn’t going to be with us for much longer. And that takes some processing.
Everyone does that in their own way, of course. The great-grandchildren who trooped into her room over the next four days sang, laughed, cried, and generally delivered enough cheerful chaos to keep us all slightly distracted. Shirley’s first-born telephoned from her home in Brussels to tell her what a great mom she’d been. It’s the kind of thing you’d say at a memorial service, she explained, but she wanted to make sure she heard it before it was too late. Through it all, it was the certainty of the prognosis that pushed us along: The terrain ahead was clear and unobstructed by false hopes or wishful thinking. Everyone knew what was coming around the next bend. The doctor told us she’d get there pretty soon.
On Tuesday, Shirley was transferred to a residential hospice facility. She’d finally been able to eat a little soup that afternoon and swallow a few teaspoons of tepid coffee. And later that evening she ate a bowl of ice cream with such serene delight that I told her I was going to tell the folks at Kemps to get a camera crew in here to film it for a commercial. “You look like you’re in love,” I said. She did not disagree.
When we arrived the following day, she was sitting up in a recliner, holding court. She still wasn’t able to put many words together, but her voice was getting stronger, her face more animated. She was not declining, as expected; and a week after the stroke, hospice staffers began talking about nursing homes and physical therapy — completely new terrain.
The palliative care doctor at the hospital had warned us that Shirley may appear to “rally” a few days before dying, so we don’t quite know what to make of this latest development. We’re all glad to see her showing signs of recovery, of course, but it brings some uncertainty into the trip, the likelihood of peaks and valleys in the road ahead.
But that’s probably the wrong way to look at this. It’s not about us, after all. Shirley’s the one who’s really finding her way. We’re just along for the ride — and all that journey can teach us.