My Grandma was a strong-willed, independent and passionate human being. She loved her family unconditionally. At almost 99 years old she lived alone and cared for herself. I would pop in and check on her and she would reassure me of her independence and ability to care for herself. I remember looking at a blood stained paper towel on every chair. She said to me “I am healthy and fine”. So I quickly removed the soiled paper towel and replaced it with a clean one. She loved the weekend visits when her “littles”, when her two great granddaughters came to visit.
One Monday in April everything changed, she called and said “I need your help, please take me to the doctor tomorrow”. I was out of town on a work trip so I asked my Husband to take her to the ER. My Mom and Husband where surprised as she had requested the doctors. I calmly told my husband that she was dying of cancer and the doctor couldn’t do anything. You see, I already knew. The symptoms were there, she was sleeping more, needed less groceries from me, the weight-loss and of course the bleeding she kept telling me was not a big deal was there. I honored her wishes and she continued to live on her terms while the cancer slowly invaded her body. She died that Saturday of metastatic uterine cancer.
Her death was beautiful. What is beautiful about it, is she went on her terms. She was sick enough she could have been a nursing home. She could have lived with me taking care of her and nurses visiting our home. She didn’t want that life. She wanted to live alone caring for herself. She did just that.
I arrived from my work trip Thursday , the minute I walked in I knew everyone had down-played how sick she was. I kept sneaking into the bathroom to cry. My Grandma was proud, independent and was very mad I arrived home from my work tip early. I was trying to be strong, she would have been furious to know I was so upset. I had no reservations about bringing her to be home on hospice. At home were my two daughters, age 3 and age 5. I have worked in hospice for 10 years so I felt comfortable in caring for her with the support of Namaste. However I was so scared in how my girls would handle it. How would I explain this to them? Two weekends ago they saw their great grandma, she was up and walking, talking, giving hugs and tickles. Now she was unresponsive and 24-48 hours away from death.
Her hospice care was amazing and 24 hours after bringing her into my home she died peacefully with her hand resting inside mine. Both my girls gave her their favorite stuffy to keep her comfortable. Both spent hours at her bedside holding her hand. I don’t know how much they understood but my heart was full knowing that my grandma was surrounded by so much love, although I am sure she was mad to she was getting too much attention; that was not her style.
After she died I stayed at her bedside waiting for the hospice nurse to arrive. The girls were upstairs dying Easter eggs. Shortly after she died an Angel, named Debbie, walked into our home. Debbie pulled me in for a hug that was filled with compassion, understanding and love. She greeted my family and asked anyone if they wanted to say goodbye. Everyone quietly said no, except my 5 year old said she did. That moment seemed to last a lifetime, in my mind I went over all the reasons I should yell no! It was my job to protect her. Even though I have spent the last 10 years of my career sharing the value of hospice, and that death is a normal part of life, I suddenly wanted to shield my child from any additional hurt, or maybe I wanted to shied myself? I looked at Debbie who simply nodded once. She may have not meant for it to be subtle but I think it was so if I said no, I wasn’t going against her recommendation.
I took Zoey’s hand and walked down the stairs. Debbie put one arm on my back. While I took a deep breath and braced myself for my sweet child’s reaction I felt safe knowing Debbie was right there. She never removed her arm. She stayed strong for me when I had no strength left. Zoey said goodbye and kissed her great-grandma one last time. My heart squeezed. I was trying so hard to just be brave, to be strong. I didn’t need to because Debbie, the hospice nurse, was there giving me strength. While we were at her bedside, Zoey asked me a few questions. I can’t recall what they were or what I said. I do recall not breathing when I was talking. These are things that can mess up a child right? What if I said the wrong thing? I looked at Debbie who kept offering a nod of encouragement. She didn’t speak up, why wasn’t she explaining this? She was the expert after all! When Zoey was satisfied she retuned upstairs. Debbie pulled me in for another hug and said “great-job”. I was so worried I said the wrong thing, and then I knew, Debbie would have stepped in but she was letting me be a Mom and I did everything I could.
Those precious moments in my life will stay with me forever. How we handled her death will forever reflect how my children remember that moment. Debbie changed our family lives with just one visit to our home. She was the one who came after my Grandma died.
I don’t know that Debbie can tell you that she remembers keeping one arm on my back, or what that represented for me. She does those simple things each and every day. For each patient or family member who calls her, or whom she visits. She walks in and provides comfort and support. It’s just what she does.
Hospice nurses change lives, they change deaths. Sometimes with one visit, sometimes with visits 3 times a week for a month, sometimes with weekly visits for 6 months. It doesn’t matter the quantity of visits, it’s about the simple moments. From changing a medication, to holding a hand. They are moments that are often not mentioned. Those moments happen when it’s 100 degrees outside, or when the streets have a thick sheet of black ice. Those moments happen on Mondays, or even on Christmas day. They happen at 3pm and 4am. They happen when you need them the most. These nurses leave everything at the door and walk into the sacred space that is your home and change lives.
Today, is a day that I thank Debbie for changing my life. For helping me be strong when my daughter needed it and I didn’t know if I could be the Mom I needed to be.