We all play many roles in our lifetime. For the last month I’ve been playing a role that’s new for me, but very familiar to many of our generation. Since 2003, I’ve been in private practice helping people to extend their lives through holistic health practices. For the last month, I’ve been helping someone I love walk to the door that separates life from death.
I’ve known this man and his wife for about 8 years. While not his biological parents, they assumed that role when they met my partner John about 10 years ago. One of those relationships that just evolved from stranger to loved one for a variety of reasons. So when I became John’s life partner, they made room in that relationship for me and my children. At first they loved me because he did. In time they grew to know and love me for who I am and I them. Ed and Leona are part of our family. We all have families into which we are born, and if we’re lucky, we also have families that have chosen us.
Their marriage of 25 year didn’t produce children. Both had marriages and relationships preceding their union. Ed is 91 and Lee 83. She is one of my models for graceful aging. My affection for her is only outweighed for the admiration I feel for the woman she’s grown into. I am the daughter she didn’t have.
About 2 years ago, Ed started showing signs of dementia. About a year ago, during a hospitalization from a fall, he was given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. We’ve watched him slip away slowly. The list of what he couldn’t remember became longer and longer. Yet we always knew he loved us and would always look forward to spending time with us. I spent a lot of time with him during his hospitalizations and rehab after his shoulder surgery. I was able to keep him calm and settled and to explain things to him in a way that allowed him to understand while still maintaining his dignity. There were good days and bad days, but never a day that he didn’t smile when he saw me and take my face in both his hands and kiss me. He went home and needed a care giver several hours a day.
About 6 weeks ago, he began to fail physically. He could no longer walk without assistance and his mental status declined considerably. I drove him to the hospital because he hates hospitals and I can handle the yelling and cursing that follows! Two days later tests revealed that he has brain cancer. The next day , on the advice of his physician, I took him home to the place he loves most in the world, with a prognosis of about 3 months. Only comfort care would be given and hospice nurses would oversee things. Within hours, John added ramps and other essentials for a wheel chair bound patient and transformed their first floor living room into a master bedroom. It was deemed that 24 hour care was necessary, so with the help of two others caregivers, I am there about 60 hours per week. While I mostly care for Ed’s needs, I’m there for Lee as well. Whether it’s sitting with her over a cup of tea or seeing to it that she gets out of the house, I’m attempting to make this easier for her.
Ed and I spend a lot of time on his back deck watching the comings and goings of the birds. I don’t know if he was an avid birdwatcher when he was younger and healthier, but he truly delights in them now. I do know that as a young and healthy woman I didn’t spend enough time watching the birds. I’ve learned that I too enjoy it very much and will not let the business of life get in the way of those moments in life that are truly joyful anymore. Because life is too short – even it it’s 91 years long.
I read to him daily and he enjoys it very much. I know he doesn’t understand the characters or plot, but loves the sound of my voice and the changing intonations and rhythms. It remind me of when my children were babies and the hours I spent reading aloud magazine articles because my voice soothed them.
While he doesn’t say much, less and less each day actually, I talk to him a lot. I tell him about what’s going on in the lives of John, the kids and me. And while it doesn’t always understand, I know he always cares. Understanding and caring come from two different places. I’ve decided in dealing with people to be less judgmental toward those who don’t understand and more discerning about those who don’t care
I keep him comfortable with morphine, valium and blueberry pie. There’s no limit to the amount he can have of any of these. His love for things sweet and gooey has increased and watching him enjoy them brings me joy. He’s not quite so keen on other foods. It can sometime take 30 minutes to feed him a bowl of hot cereal. But I tell him not to rush – there’s nothing to do and nowhere to be. I don’t consider myself a patient person, but I’m being patient. Perhaps it’s not too late to acquire that virtue.
Ed was a proud and independent man. He now has no control over his body or any of its functions. Assisting someone who has the physical control of an infant is a humbling experience for both parties. We humans are dependent on each other, like it or not! And we all have the same bodily functions regardless of differences in gender, race, social status. We attempt to separate ourselves, but we’re so much more similar than we are different. I consciously work to allow him dignity in spite of the circumstance.
While his Alzheimer’s would probably preclude him from understanding, Lee made the conscious decision not to tell Ed about his cancer and prognosis. But I think he knows. And in quiet times, my spirit talks to his spirit and tells him not to be afraid. Words and thoughts, facts and statistics verbalized are really an inferior form of communication that we are trained to perform, but the real meaningful things can often go unspoken.
Lee honored me with letting her help plan his funeral. As time goes by and his condition continues to worsen, I am there more and more. I spend about 3 nights a week there sleeping in a bed snug up against his hospital bed. I care for him during the night and hold his hand. In a state of half-sleep I awaken whenever his breathing changes. I want to be the one who is there when he crosses over. I want to walk him to the door and wish him God’s speed. Following Jewish tradition, I will open the window to allow his spirit to leave and will sit with the body until the funeral director arrives. I didn’t have this opportunity when my father died suddenly and alone 15 years ago.
I’ve learned a lot this month. I’ve learned about the science of dying, and more about the spirit of living. When this part is over, I will sit shivah with others who loved him. My family will plant a tree in our yard to honor the man who came everyday as we renovated and restored our house, making it into our home.
As we boomers age, we’ll deal with the death of loved ones more and more often. Living consciously through another’s dying can be an invaluable lesson that will enrich our own lives. I am a better person for having been through this last month that has been filled with grace.
For all those who’ve patiently awaited responses to your questions and inquires and have kindly rescheduled appointments, I thank you for your understanding. I will be in a better position to serve your needs having played this new role.
Pamela Stoy Eelman is a Certified Holistic Health Counselor and founder of A Balanced Life, Inc. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or her website:
Pamela Stoy Eelman, CHHC, Boomer-Living Director. She is a Holistic Health Practitioner, certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. Pam is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and founder and president of A Balanced Life, Inc. located in Doylestown, PA. Combining the latest scientific findings with ancient traditional wisdom, Pam helps individuals achieve total health and wellness. Her holistic approach recognizes that the body, mind and soul must be involved for real and lasting healing.
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