Our Last Great Adventure
But, our own dying and death is not ONLY our Last Great Adventure of this life, it is also our last opportunity to be generous. Should we be so fortunate as to have friends and family who will remain behind as we enter the beyond, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to give them something to treasure as we leave the building, so to speak? Well, this got me reminiscing about the dyings and deaths I’ve been privy to, and they started to fall into some categories.
Let’s Start With The Surprised
Surprised: aka the “Oh Sh-T” response. These are certainly products of traumatic accidents, but it may be more common in hospitals. That’s where I’ve seen most of them. These sometimes turn into the “2 Oh Sh-t” responses. The first when they realize their body is shutting down fast, and the second when they wake up in the ICU surrounded by machinery and tubes, and they realize that they have to go through dying – again.
The Stubborn: sub-categories: the passive aggressive and the warrior victim. Rob was of the passive aggressive variety. At 95 yrs old he had his Pacemaker
replaced and insisted on having the ‘defribillator’ turned on because his goal was to live to be 100. As occasionally happens, I had known Rob from 30 yrs prior to my becoming his Home Care Nurse. He was short, round and jolly forever. And he was very comfortable with people taking care of him for the last 20 yrs of his life. And it was work, a lot of work. He stayed pretty good natured most of the time, thank goodness, because had he been sour natured I think the family would have re-negged on the promise to keep him out of a nursing home. Our orders were also to keep him out of the hospital. And, that we did until his hip broke during the last of his many recent tumbles. Then Rob went to the hospital, then to Hospice, then beyond, all within 2 1/2 days. Warrier Victims are the ones who fight the valiant fight; the ones whose obituaries read “…after a long battle…”. Another word for stubborn could be persistent, and we know the subtlty of the difference. These are the ones who have Big Reasons to stay alive. They have unfinished busininess.
The Expeditious: Uncle Seamus was expiditious. At his 87th birthday he announced “87 g d years is enough” and he stopped eating and drinking and passed away peacefully within a few months. The day before he died we had a chance to chat but, more importantly, just hold each other and remember all the good times. There was Jane, who had gone through breast cancer treatment several years prior and whose husband had recently died from kidney failure. We used to socialize with Mr. & Mrs. and also teased them about their being the frozen chosen. They were 2 of the most ‘proper’ Episcopalians I’ve ever met. The adult children were all grown and successful, some in the area and some not, but close-knit family, as one might say. And Jane, well dressed, with everything in order, up and moved to the local Hospice Residence. She got comfy and for the next 4 days, as she did the ‘you say hello, I say goodbye’ thing that a proper woman does, when receiving guests. Then she would finish with “I’ll see you in Paradise”. These are people who know what’s coming and are ready for the ride. They’re getting on the express train with a bit of a smile that says – “I did it”.
The Terrified: I readily recall two patients who died this way and it wasn’t a pretty sight. They both died in the hospital, with long illnesses, and I think we failed them miserably.
The Lingering: aka “The I’m ready to die already!” Ahhhh…my lingerers. They’re my precious, reluctant mentors shrouded in graciousness: the mantle of kindness, charm, courtesy, compassion, polite to supposed inferiors, marked by ease. These are the ones who have lived their lives as though each day could be the last. They’re also the one’s you may hear whine “Now that I’ve practiced living with death, this is feeling a bit anti-climactic”. These are the one’s we really, really need to listen to. Yet, I’m often told, that no one listens. Not that they expect anything else, after all, they’ve been practicing and know something about life and people. It’s more like another ‘Ah-Hah’ moment being added to their already long lists. And they set aside the expectations, but never the hope, of something. Additionally, they’ve had quite healthy lives with many experiences and stories. They pretty much go along with the program that everyone else has set for them. It’s a riot when they ‘act out’ for the benefit of family, friends or staff. Their ‘acting out’ is often more akin to behaving as their loved ones expect/hope they would do. For example: complain about something, it doesn’t matter what but it gives the family & staff something to do; if you’re in a nursing home tell them you want to go home because the service sucks. But those are rare. Otherwise, they might think I’m dead already. These are The Elders. They have many gifts to give us, if we give them the chance. They are generous, as demonstrated by their patience and cooperation. They are compassionate with everyone because they know that ‘everyone’ has other things they could be doing instead of being with them, and so they are grateful as well. And in some of our chats the wondering if this isn’t, maybe, a purgatory of some sort. Maybe they still have work to do. And so they continue on their paths, practicing skillful intention, mindfulness, awareness of what is going on, inside and outside. I think these are the saints. The longest lingerer I’ve known lingered for ten years. She was very advanced in her practice, and her biggest surprise (that she was definitely getting pretty tired of) was waking up after sleep. Much wisdom.
And then there are the Genuinely Lighthearted. You have to keep your eyes open for these folk. These are people who have, if nothing else, lived virtuous lives, true to themselves and didn’t take themselves too seriously, but were serious about their passions. The ‘one’ I remember, and I admit to the possibility of some ego in the telling, I knew for about 4 days. I was a Hospital Aide then, getting ready to enter Nursing School the following August. I loved those 9 months mostly because I was able to get to know so many fascinating people, in such an intimate way, at a time of their extreme vulnerability, without the responsibility of being a nurse. It was quite a privilege. Anyway, I met Marta on Thursday morning but she didn’t meet me. She had been in a coma for awhile. Remember, as an Aide I had no nursing going on. As I was bathing her I marveled at how beautiful her body was. I admit, it is an unusual thing to say. But Marta was in her early 80’s and her body looked a lot younger. This was when I became marginally privy to MD’s notes and, when I was a bit startled by phrases like: “appears older than stated age” or “atrophied breasts”, so marveling at Marta’s body has medical precedent. I learned that Marta had 3 children, a long deceased / gone husband, and that she had been a competitive swimmer and diver in her youth, and then became a professional diver with a long career. No wonder. On the second day as I was bathing her, Marta opened her eyes and, for an instant we were both quite startled. Then Marta spoke first. “OH! You are soooo beautiful!” I was speechless and Marta closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
Now Marta’s adult children were still working on “assembling” for their Mom’s passing. Not having designated a family liason, each off-spring called for updates. I became the designated family liason for the assigned RN. I finally have news to share and was totally prepared when #1 son called. The tale of Marta’s waking was enthusiastically conveyed. It was received with “You Do Know that my Mother has dementia, don’t you?” Well shut my mouth. Marta Had to be lighthearted to balance that anvil-heart!
Be Generous Along The Path – and Be Prepared To Be Surprised
He said the dead had souls, but when I asked him
How could that be – I thought the dead were souls,
He broke my trance. Don’t that make you suspicious
That there’s something the dead are keeping back?
Yes, there’s something the dead are keeping back.
Robert Frost, “The Two Witches”