The gurney wheels echoed a rhythmic ‘whack whack whack’. Then silence.
Stopping in front of pale green double doors. Reaching across Donna’s supine form the orderly loudly slapped a metal plate. Electric doors shuddered and opened to the hospice unit.
A few seconds of silence and the ‘whack whack whack’ began again slower and softer. The doors closed and whispered ‘welcome’.
Mark: “It’s very silent. Not like it is upstairs”
Orderly: “I come here and it’s like this isn’t the hospital. Like it’s somewhere else, y’know what I’m saying?”
Mark: “I know peaceful” (a pause) “Without all the machines beeping, staff darting about, and families talking. It feels…”
Orderly: “I hear you. Upstairs is for people who’ve got things to do like get better and go home. In hospice it’s quiet, like you know where you are. You get it?”
The gurney navigated a harshly lit florescent hall. Dark cave like rooms lined both sides of the hall. Family members in silhouette stood by bedsides looking down at vacant faces lying in unfocused silence. All were pale, mouths open, dentures missing, with sallow skeleton hands clutching blankets to hold them in the present.
Snippets of voices exited the rooms.
“Dad seems so out of it. What happening?”
“Will we know when mom is going to___ ?”
“We are here to make your mother comfortable free from pain.
“Room 34B has not had a visitor today can someone request a volunteer to read to Mrs. Jenny?”
Mark “Do you frequently bring patients here? Does it make you sad?”
Orderly: “Once or twice a week, maybe. Over time it’s not what I thought a hospice would be. I always thought it would make me run, y’know? Like where peoples are dying. This kinda seems like a rest stop now. A place of peace before... Just keeps me from, you know, (almost a whisper) thinking hospice.”
Mark: “Perhaps giving death agency is what hospice is.”
Three years earlier
Voice Mail Message at Work: “Donna you have terminal cancer and six months to live. Please call me.”
Grief began that day there would be no fairytale ending. At that moment she gifted him her disease so she could live life on her terms free from the anchor of death.
The role of caregiver replaced grief by offering up purpose and meaning each day. Each caregiving task pulled a bit of yarn that unraveled every moment of 29 years and bringing them to-life in bas-relief.
Mark: “Donna we’re going to be late for the CT scan.”
Donna: “Stop being annoyingly OCD. So what if I miss a scan I’m the terminal one not you. Grab a cab.”
Mark: “I’m just trying to keep things moving. The scan will tell us if the treatment is working.”
Donna: “Shut up. I know the science and medicine better than you. Just get a cab.”
Mark: “Stand on the curb while I hail a cab.”
Donna: “I’m not a cripple yet. Stop treating me like one. Get a fucking cab.”
Thinking back: “Why do I continue to hear street noise and not her voice?”
Donna shouting: “There! That one. Get it.”
Mark: “Stop pushing me into traffic. Are you trying to get me run over?”
He opened the cab door helped Donna in and clicked her seatbelt. You don’t want to die in an accident.
Donna laughing: “Got it didn't we and we won’t be late. So there.”
When the hospice doors closed caregiving molted away to be slowly replaced by the familiar rhythm of a loved one.
The gurney entered room 25. It was dark. The bed was neatly made. The faded teal walls held invisible cave drawings of those to who rested here before. Two chairs and an end table surrounded the bed in mock anticipation. Outside the windows on the left was an internal courtyard with rusting AC equipment. Not the park that was seen from Room 809 in the hospital. How long would she be in Room 25? There was no expectation of discharge only release.
Room 25 became a teal blue rowboat named ‘Hospice’. Donna was gently moved to the bed handed her teddy bear Ruggle’s. They both kept each other safe. As she reclined in the bed looking at the drabness surrounding her Donna was preparing to be pushed from the dark wet sands on shore onto a calm lake at sunset. How long would the wake of the rowboat remain?
Before the voice mail they would drive to Maine sitting in a connected silence like starlings on a telephone line allowing the air from open windows to lift them into flight. In hospice they sat in silence again. Even without the wind they rose and sored high above the teal rowboat.
The afternoon’s sunlight filtered in between the six or seven floors above. Over time the windowsill became alter of flowers, cards, and stuffed animals brought by friends knowing she would never see them. Those totems stood faceless and emotionless. Reminders that even they wanted no part of this.
“Donna I bought “McDuff Saves the Day” You want me to read it to you?”
I opened the book and began to read. It was one we found in Portland, Maine a year ago. Nina looked like McDuff. Donna was so happy to have that book.
“It was the Fourth of July. Lucy and Fred took McDuff and the baby for a picnic at Lake Ocarina. McDuff rode in the backseat next to the baby, which he did not like, but with the fried chicken, which he did like.”
“McDuff switched to the front seat, where he could see everything which he liked.”
I think she heard me read to her. In the opium dreams of the dying she saw Nina running on the sandy beach and smiled.
For each of the 21 days in hospice his heart broke witnessing the horizon of death rushing toward her. Death never slowed in its approach. Death never lost its breath. Death was never rushed. It was the vista in the windshield.
Is sharing a death is the ultimate act of love? It’s a ballet perfectly choreographed with plies, pirouettes, and arabesques. Silently staged for no one other than them. The hospice Sherpa’s lifted my caregiving restored our loved ones status.
Sunday evening I was finishing up walking and feeding Nina when the phone rang.
“Come back to the hospital right away. Her breathing is agonal.”
I jumped in a cab told the driver where to go and how. A wrong turn and a one-way street forced me to jumped out and race down the pavement through the hospital up a crowded elevator that stopped on every floor to room 25.
Her eyes were closed to the soft evening light filtering into the room. I walked to a neatly made bed with the blanket pulled up to her chest and kissed her. The nurse came in and said, “She passed away five minutes ago.”
An attending and a resident came to pronounce the time of death. They brought extreme understanding, kindness, and empathy. I tried to comfort them because I needed to be comforted. I failed as did in keeping her alive.
The sun was setting as I sat alone in a park next to the hospital facing west calling family and friends. The orange sunset over New Jersey peeked though the valleys between buildings. I recognized, for the first time in 21 days, that two blocks away we married 28 years earlier. The Rabbi noted, “Marriage is one life event we do together. We are born alone. We die alone.”
Donna died alone while I was running to be by her side.
Brightly colored ribbons of our life were loosened, paper wrapping was neatly unfolded and boxes opened revealing memories as a loved one and one who loved.
Donna’s death and my memories are the gifts we’ve given each other.
*”What Sarah Said” By Death Cab For Cutie