This is the second post in a two-part series about my family’s first experience with hospice. November is National Hospice and Palliative Care Month…
My mom and I make plans for cocktail hour in Aunt Jean’s “new” room, inviting two of Jean’s closest friends nicknamed “the campers.” This tradition of whiskey Manhattans with cherries goes back to family gatherings at Aunt Jean and Uncle Chet’s basement bar at their home in Milwaukee.
Entertaining friends have always been important to Aunt Jean and she has taught me well. I make sure enough seats are available, that the cocktail napkins are seasonal, and that there are her favorite snacks to go along with the alcohol.
Cashews, Italian thin bread sticks and cheddar cheese spread are arranged on her favorite platter. Background music from some of Jean’s favorite musicians is playing softly and we make the room feel as cozy as possible even with the added medical equipment that occupies corners.
Aunt Jean is thrilled to see her friends and they are grateful we have included them in this impromptu party. All of us being aware of the limited time we will have to spend together. I make a toast to friendship, love and to all the fond memories we share, and while choking back tears, we take sips of our drinks.
Stories of camping trips and crane sightings in Nebraska, keep Aunt Jean smiling and reminiscing with her friends. But then I notice how difficult it is for her to swallow and realize the few sips she has had of her favorite cocktail, will be her last.
She is exhausted once her friends leave, but tells us how much it means to her that she was able to have her last party…
The following week, she falls while trying to get to the bathroom, and she asks me what comes next. I know this requires me to put aside my role as “godchild” and to put on my professional role as “nurse.” So, I tell her how she will need to stay in bed because of weakness. I explain how her kidneys will stop producing urine as she stops eating and drinking and that she will sleep more than she is awake.
The hospice nurse is with her more often now, making sure that her pain is minimal and supporting us in any way possible. I lay down next to her in the hospital bed, stroking her forearm with my fingertips – a routine started between us when I was a girl, each of us taking turns when we are together.
She seems to be sleeping as I continue, but suddenly her eyes widen and she stares at the ceiling and says, “Why are you keeping me here, I can’t move.” I have read the book, entitled “Final Gifts” and recognize this as the way the dying often communicate. I take a deep breath and say, “Aunt Jean, no one is holding you back or keeping you here, if you need to go, it is okay.”
Early the next day, the phone rings at 3:00 a.m. It is the hospice nurse telling me she believes my aunt is taking her last breath. I ask her to hold the phone up to my aunt’s ear and say the words I have spoken many times in the past, “I love you Aunt Jean.”
I hang up the phone as I begin to cry, missing her already but grateful knowing that her struggle is over and that she is now in the arms of God.
Up until Aunt Jean’s death, my loved ones who died – my husband, father, and cousin’s husband were all alive one day and dead the next. Sudden, traumatic, unexpected death, the kind you are not ready for, the kind that introduces you to the world of SHOCK.
My aunt’s death was difficult; losing anyone you love and have long-term history with forever changes your life. But I was given the gift of time, the opportunity to reminisce and to say anything I needed to say. Personally, I see it as my godmother’s final gift to me – the chance to see death in a whole new light. It is no longer the enemy, the giver of heartache. This time it was a natural and necessary end to a good life, well lived.