Monday, July 18, an orderly began to wheel Donna’s bed out of the 9th floor oncology unit to move her to the hospice unit. The bed was large and the orderly thin, he moved slowly and carefully as I walked alongside. My mind racing in an animal fear of fight or flight. This story that we knew would never end well was moving to its final curtain call.
Donna turned on her side and slept. The elevator carried us down to the fourth floor where the Hospice unit was located. We rolled and walked past rooms with the nearly dead lying motionless while loved ones stood next to them faces turned down, patting emaciated hands some sat in chairs silently. Some spoke; all looked broken. I felt broken. In the family waiting area family members were speaking quietly, while others sat and stared. Unlike the medical surgical unit the hospice had no beeping machines. No rushing of staff to administer meds, check on IVs, take blood pressure, or prepare discharge instructions. Death marched forward at its own pace. In hospice no one is discharged, they were released.
During her time here, on the knife edge of death, she offered up some very Donna moments. Hospice volunteers would visit our room to ask if I or Donna needed anything, a coffee, if she or I wanted to talk, if Donna and I would just like them to spend time with us, being comforting. A volunteer festooned in a black vest littered with pins, buttons, and symbols came to Donna’s bedside. In that calm trained almost whisper so as not to wake the dead voice introduced himself, adding, “If there is anything I can do, please let me know. If you want to talk, I am here.”
Donna turned and looked at him and in an equally quiet voice, and all sincerity said, “Go away, you are creepy looking.”
I guess the vest was not as Chanel as she would have liked. Perhaps she wanted to be where she was fully engaged in her world. I’m sorry that a volunteer got the full-on Donna. It was a relief to see her being Donna the the woman I married. The woman I loved.
About 10 days into hospice I was asked “Now would be a good time to have end-of-life discussions with her,” the Hospice Rabbi and social worker said a week later. “What does she want for her funeral? What are her regrets? Did she find joy in her life?”
Joy? I failed her. She is dying. All I could do was think of that.
I hesitated for a day out of fear and needing to rehearse what to say and how. Then next afternoon, alone with Donna, I looked at her in the bed and said, “Donna, perhaps you want to talk about your funeral.”
She looked, well less looked more glared at me and said, “Don’t be a maudlin pussy.”
Then she rolled onto her side and fell asleep. Again she was all Donna never surrendering herself to anyone, not even death.
I made the funeral plans in two days. I was an account person executing a tactical plan for a client, bang, bang, bang, do, do, do. I had to keep moving so I wouldn't drown in my ocean of fear.
August 5th, a Friday night, Donna was drifting between death and euthanasia. Her hair extensions were a mess. She looked like hell and I was ashamed I let her get to this point. I had failed yet again. I took a picture (which I will not share) and texted it to the woman who was doing her extensions.
“Help, can you come.”
There wasn’t a response right away so I called her and pleaded with her to come and fix Donna’s hair. Being around the dying is not something any of us want. Death seems contagious. But Pamela came to the room. She was visibly shaken, seeing Donna in this state, in a bed, not conscious. She opened her bag and pulled out scissors, a spool of microfilament, and some gel. Then she took out each extension, brushed it, replaced it, and with the skill of a surgeon, tied the extensions to what little hair existed. I’m not sure Donna felt better. I did. I guess I did.