Death and Birth

I looked at the calendar.

“It’s February 26?!” I exclaimed. “How did that happen?”

My husband wisely did not answer.

“Was my last article about New Years?” I asked.

My husband kept his head down, and kept typing.

“What happened to January and February?” I asked.

We both knew that it was a rhetorical question. January bought death and February bought life. This is my story of January and February.

January was a tough month.

I’d had my 91 year old Aunt Ellen over for Christmas where we had popovers for breakfast, presents, and a mid-day turkey dinner. You could tell by the look on her face that the pandemonium of seven adults and two infants opening presents on Christmas morning brought her joy. She had long-standing health issues but still she was handling most her own finances, and was an active resident of the Village in Mansfield. She was living testament to the theory that nice, conscientious people live longer.

But after Christmas, I began to get frequent phone calls. In the middle of the night, the Village nurse would call me and tell me that my aunt had fallen. They’d tried to convince her to go to the hospital, but she insisted that she was fine. One night at midnight, after they called and said they were sending her to the ER, I got up and had almost reached the hospital when the nurse called and told me “Never-mind, she decided that she was all right.” Sigh…

But it soon became worse. Soon after, she was send to the hospital. I sat with her one night while they took her blood on three different occasions. None went well. Her veins were small and it took several tries. I vainly attempted to intervene.

“This is the third time!” I cried. “Do you really need to do this?”

Nurses are unsung heroes, and they sincerely apologized. “We’re sorry. We’re really sorry. But it’s ordered. The doctor ordered it.”

My aunt had two major hospitalizations during January. The first occurred because the nurse practitioner felt that my aunt was confused. And then a urine test came back positive.

“We’ve given her oral antibiotics.” they said. “And they haven’t worked. She needs intravenous antibiotics.”

Off she went to the emergency room where they discovered that her heart beat was irregular.

“She needs a to have an ECHO…” they told me. “but, her urine test came back fine.”

She stayed in the hospital for 4 days before the test was scheduled. When she went in, she was her normal sane and calm self. But, after a couple of days, things changed.

“I’ve had kind of an odd day.” she told me. “All of the people at the Village have been replaced by people who say they are from Sturdy.”

Then, in her own organized, low-key fashion, she made a list of all the furniture that was missing from her room, 14 items in all. She wasn’t upset. She just wanted to document it.

Her next hospitalization occurred because she was having trouble breathing and appeared to be coming down with pneumonia. This time, she was in the hospital for a week. The day after she returned home to the Village, I got another call. She’d had a stroke and was in ICU. She lost the ability to speak.

I thought that that was the worst of it. But, it wasn’t. Along with speech, she had lost her ability to swallow.

During this hospitalization, she was clearly herself. She pointed to a book that I had bought. She touched the first page, and then the last. She did this several times.

“The beginning and the end? Does she mean what I think she means?” I asked myself. “No…I’m not going to ask her that question.”

But she summoned enough strength to whisper it plainly.

“I want to die.”

Hospice is a blessing.

I was terrified that my aunt would be caught up in the medical machine. I was terrified that well meaning nurses would keep probing for blood. That she would find herself sent from ICU to rehab, and then back again. That each new set of doctors would be reluctant to prescribe the sleeping pills that was one of the few things she cared about. I was terrified that she would be surrounded by strangers who did not understand what a bright, generous and considerate person she was. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to prevent all this from happening.But we were fortunate.

The doctor who heads the ICU at Sturdy recommended hospice, and the Village, where she had spent her last nine years, was able to help.

The end came quickly. My aunt returned home to the Village on a Tuesday, was able to visit with my kids and her two great-great nephews on Wednesday. The two year old came in, seeing her in bed, he climbed into the chair next her and sang her a lullaby. She died the next evening with myself and her other niece at her side.

I won’t try to claim that sitting a death watch, and administering medicine, isn’t a scary and sad experience. When my aunt was conscious she couldn’t talk and it was a relief to me when she fell asleep, and then became unresponsive. It didn’t look like she was suffering. But I will never know if I did enough to comfort her during her last hours. I will never know whether or not she was in pain. I did what the hospice personnel recommended and prayed that it was right. Hospitals give the illusion that you are putting the people you love into competent hands. Hospice is more personal. In the end, I guess life is a leap of faith. It’s about making the best choices in the moment, and then asking and giving forgiveness, even if that forgiveness is only to yourself.

February was a different story.

My aunt died the end of January; her memorial service was at the beginning of February; and my newest grandson was born two days later.

I haven’t had time to mourn my aunt because my house has been so full of children and grand-children.

But I think she would be pleased because that was the kind of person that she was. And I pray that at least some of her good qualities will live on in me, and that I can transmit them to the great-great nephew that she never got the chance to meet.

2 comments to Death and Birth

  • Richard and I have health care directives filed with our doctor, and healthcare powers of attorney. why cannot folks go with dignity instead of this constant testing (to cover their rear, I think). death, going to another plane, should be a peaceful process ..

  • Lyn and Mason Kingsbury

    Thank you for this and the photograph of Aunt Ellen. We had many great times in the past — playing bridge, at Westport, and NH. My mother died just one week before my first grand daughter was born. It makes me wonder if they were trading places. So glad you were with her at the end as I was with my mother who smiled three times as she passed away. Congratulations on your new grandson. Will be looking forward to reading about him.

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