My old friend Colin Lively hosts a Friday afternoon radio program on the “Here Women Talk” network in New York. Colin and I are the same age and he has been doing what we all do at one time or another, contemplating dying alone. It was one of the topics of his Friday afternoon show and reminded me of the time I spent as a Hospice volunteer. I wrote a small story about it and the local Hospice published it in their magazine. Here it is
Eleventh Hour is a volunteer program sponsored by Hospice. If a dying individual has no family, or if the family cannot cope with the reality of the dying process, an Eleventh Hour volunteer keeps a bedside vigil with the one about to leave this earth in the belief that no one should die alone. This is the story of such a vigil
Thursday – 1:15 p.m.
A call comes from Hospice asking me if I will sit for an 11th hour vigil tonight.
I had been planning to have lunch with my friend, Billie, today, and if she hadn’t canceled I wouldn’t have been here to take the call.
“I haven’t finished 11th Hour training,” I whine. I agree anyway to a 3-hour vigil beginning at 11:30 p.m.
That leaves me ten good hours to worry about it and pray for strength, energy and the ability to give comfort to this dear soul.
My husband, Mike, and I eat dinner at our regular time, 8 p.m. After dinner we get into bed. He is going to watch tv and I will try and take a nap.
When he falls asleep after fifteen minutes I get up and start getting ready. At 11 p.m. I call to see if my patient, Josephine, is still alive. The nurse’s station does not answer so after being transferred around and eventually cut off, I get into the car and make the 20-minute drive.
The door from the parking lot is locked so I use the house phone. No answer. As I hang on the phone an aide leaves the building and I make a run for the door, getting in before she knows what happened.
I find a nurse who directs me to Josephine’s room. The room numbers are out of order. The room number moves with the patient and Josephine has been moved to a room just outside the nurse’s station.
I meet Ken, the Hospice volunteer I am relieving. We recognize each other from training days.
My patient is comatose, mouth open, mucous rattling in the back of her throat. She twitches, her right arm involuntarily hitting her left chest. Ken has been sitting quietly, reading and praying for her.
He tells me the nurses have been very good about keeping her clean. She is having involuntary bowel movements. It’s about time to change her again.
As he leaves, Ken asks is there is anything he can do for me. Pray, I think.
No, I say.
Josephine looks to be in her late 70’s. She has grey hair and beautiful smooth skin. I can see that she was once a lovely woman.
There’s a grey fabric bulletin board on the wall to the left of her bed. In the upper right corner is a Crucifix. Beneath it are family photos – a son, I think, a grandchild, and a bride.
There are photos of those I believe to be the son and a granddaughter sitting alongside Josephine during what were obviously happier, healthier times. I decide she is in her 60’s now rather than her 70’s.
Josephine is being fed oxygen. I seat myself in the only chair in the room, which I pull close to the bed. I am right next to the portable oxygen machine.
A night light is on in the room and the bathroom door is ajar and its light is spilling out into the room. Enough light for me to see pretty well but not so bright as to hurt Josephine’s eyes.
I touch her arm. “Hello, Josephine. I’m Jo Ann and I’d like to sit with you a while.” One eye slightly opens then shuts again. “You just rest, old girl, and know I’m here with you. You are not alone.”
But I am, I thought.
A nurse has been in to retrieve a plastic cup, but nothing is said or done about changing Josephine. Should I say something? I decide to wait a little.
The phone at the nurse’s station rings. I count the number of rings. There are 40. No one answers.
I look around the room to see what I can learn about this dear old soul.
There are two small baskets of artificial flowers on a dresser. Two small framed Italian-looking prints hang on the wall. There are a couple of figurines – a girl in blue holding something I can’t quite make out, and a few items too small to identify in the dim light.
There is a wheelchair, a big comfortable looking one that resembles an easy chair on wheels. A hand-crocheted afghan lays on the back of the chair. It is gold, olive and royal blue in the zig-zag pattern so popular in the 60’s.
I wonder if she made it herself and how long it had been since she sat in the chair with the afghan over her knees and chatted with other residents.
The saddest, loneliest things in the room are her shoes. They are black loafers made of beautiful, soft leather. They look nearly new.
The shoes have been placed in front of the dresser and have been abandoned there by their owner, never to be worn again.
A greeting card has been taped to the front of the closet door. It is a 4″ square photo of a big yellow daisy. I wonder who loved her enough to send the card or who she loved so much that she taped it to the door.
I want to look inside the card but do not.
In the corner above the dresser and attached to the wall is a television. Seated high atop the TV is a white plush teddy bear wearing a plaid scarf. His arms are open in a welcoming gesture and he is looking directly at us.
Josephine is very agitated. “It’s ok, Josephine. I’m here and I’ll stay with you. You are not alone, old girl.”
An aide comes in. Mary Ann. She tells Josephine she is going to check her for dryness. Pain medication is administered, undergarments changed, and a cold compress is applied to Josephine’s forehead because she has a temperature.
The head of the bed is elevated and Josephine seems to be a little more comfortable. So am I.
I decide to read to her from Living Words of Jesus. I hope she hears me.
The phone outside rings again. 17 rings.
I pray out loud for Josephine and hope it is OK to do so.
“Lord, please welcome this old soul into Your presence and have mercy on her as she suffers. Please release her from her pain and take her into Your fold.”
Josephine reminds me of my own mom when she was in Hospice. Body completely worn out and useless, mind shut down, but heart still pounding.
Her breathing has become very shallow and I believe her to be actively dying. I doubt she will survive the night and pray for her release. Periods of apnea begin but the agitation ceases momentarily.
Josephine is grimacing badly and I think she is in serious pain. I get the nurse who brings a bottle and dropper to the bedside. She measures a specified amount of medication into the dropper and puts it in Josephine’s mouth.
The old lips close around the dropper as if they know the elixir will bring yearned-for relief.
Peace is momentarily restored.
The nurse thanks me. I thank her profusely.
The phone rings 4 times. Someone answers. My vigil will be over in 45 minutes and already I know I don’t want to leave.
Josephine begins twitching again. I gently rub her shoulder.
“It’s ok, old girl. I know you want to go and it’s all right. Whenever you’re ready you can just let go.”
I believe she relaxes after I say this. I quietly pray to God to take her.
My replacement arrives. He is a very tall, gentle-looking man in his 60’s. “Are you okay?” he asks? I think he is speaking to Josephine and am taken aback that he is talking to me.
I tell Josephine I’m leaving.
“Good night, old girl. I’m going home now but Walt is going to stay with you tonight. He’s very nice. And he smells good, too.”
She does not respond. He smiles.
I drive home slowly, wondering if this is any way to die, but grateful to have been able to bring some small comfort to an old, sick soul.
I visit my regular Hospice patient and while I am there learn that Josephine held on two more days and finally found her way on Saturday.
Good for you, old girl.