My mother called. Dad had fallen because he had lost most of his motor nerve control. Would I come? I swiftly made arrangements, knowing I might be gone for more than a few days. A friend got me a car to use for however long I might need it. I called the University and spoke to each of my Instructors, including the one who taught the first poetry writing class I had ever taken. I explained briefly what was happening and that I didn’t know when I would be back. I left at 4:30 in the morning, arriving at my parents’ home just after 7:00AM. My older sister had arrived several hours before and was exhausted and frightened by what was happening. My younger sister arrived shortly afterward.
We were all scared, but then the Hospice nurse arrived for the first time and it was a relief to be able to let her do what she had been trained to do. We gathered around the kitchen table for a bit of breakfast and to get caught up on the situation. As we were quietly talking, the Hospice nurse came into the room, told us what she had done, then asked us,
“Which one of you is going to be his nurse when I’m not around?” My mother and both of my sisters all turned in seeming unison and pointed at me.
“Whoa, wait a minute,” I said, “aren’t we even going to take a vote on this one?” They shook their heads and I was told, “We already did that.” Remember, I never wanted to be a Hospice volunteer? There was a reason for that. I didn’t know what would be expected of me. I wasn’t prepared to be taking intimate care of a stranger, a sick one at that. And I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for my father’s care. I was the family screw-up, I was sure I’d fumble it in some very major way.
But, the nurse didn’t allow any time for second thoughts. She looked at me and said, “Come with me, I need to show you how to give him his insulin shots and take his blood sugar readings.”
“Shots?!!” I was reeling, “I have never given anyone a shot and I hate needles.”
She smiled a wonderfully calm smile and said, “That’s okay, we all have to do it the first time, now don’t we? How else do we learn, and by the way, I’m a very good teacher.” She turned her back to any further protest and walked toward my parents’ bedroom. She stopped abruptly and turned back to where I was still firmly glued to my chair, speaking with a rather telling grin, she continued, “We will need another volunteer for when you might not be available, but now you get to make the choice as to which of them will take on that duty.” I think she actually winked when she said that to me. I immediately turned to my younger sister and said, “That would be you.”
I had not seen my father yet, he’d been sleeping when I arrived. The three of us moved slowly into the room and my father smiled warmly when he saw me. The nurse asked him if we could turn on the radio and have some music. He grinned at her and said, “Oh, we don’t need any radio. Bets is here and she’s better than anything you’ll hear on the radio.”
His words were slurred, but the nurse understood and asked him, “You mean your daughter can sing?” He nodded and looked at me, “Sing something for her, let her hear what you can do.” I’d been up all night, driven all that way, was scared out of my wits, and felt tears in my eyes. Shaking my head slowly, I said softly, “I’m sorry Dad, I can’t do that right now, maybe later, okay?” Disappointed, he nodded his head and let the nurse begin her lesson. I believe that was the first and only time I had ever refused his request.
For the next three days, I was my father’s nurse. Bathing him, changing his bed linens, somehow knowing when he was attempting to get out of bed and moving to help him, or get him back there where he was safe. And my mother was there, of course. I watched as my parents met this worst of situations head on, and noticed that they didn’t speak a lot. Instead they touched one another often, finding strength and comfort in doing so.
When I would have to physically take care of dad, I was aware of something else going on. I would feel his spirit moving into my hands in a warm flow, know it moving up my arms and settling in my own chest. I didn’t speak of this with anyone, they might think I’d gone around the bend or something. But, it was real and I could feel it on a physical level.
Eventually, my father drifted into a coma and my sister and I sat with him, taking turns trying to soothe him as his breathing became more and more ragged. We knew this was the end, and all we could do was be there to comfort as best as possible. At one point, with my mother and younger sister in the room, I climbed up on that queen sized bed and spoke directly to my father. He was breathing so hard, he was drenched in sweat. I told him, quite calmly, that he needed to rest, and that if he feared leaving mom alone, we were all there to take care of her. I tried to sing him a lullaby, but again the tears came and I left the room, terrified that my mother would be angry because I had told him he could leave.
That evening my father passed away while my younger sister sang to him, after telling him that she agreed with me and that she wanted to make a deal with him. Told him she would sing for him as I had been unable to do, if he would relax and rest. As she sang softly he opened his eyes, looked at her, and then closed them and stopped breathing.
All of these images, bits of story, and memory came forward as I tried to decide what that last piece of the poem should be. This is what I wrote and it was so satisfying:
When a frown strains her forehead,
he pats the back of her hand
which slowly turns upward
palming his fingers, reassuring
that she is still there,
still aware of his presence.
(to be continued…)