The Family has hunkered down now.  Daughter Lisa from Kentucky will stay for the duration with Denis and the girls coming when the time is right.  Son, Micah, Daughter-in-Law, Becky, and Granddaughter from an hour away (the Kansas City area), are now also camping out in the downstairs tonight.  We need to be close to one another and close to Mary Ann.

Of course we cannot know when Mary Ann will let go and head off for the next leg of her journey, or more appropriately said, the destination.  Her breathing is very shallow.  Last night I got up three or four times and went over to touch her chest to determine if she was still breathing.  We want her to stay longer and at the same time to just quietly breathe her last breath without distress.

Her condition seems fragile.  It is getting harder to find a position that does not put her weight on one of the red spots that have been threatening to transition into bed sores.  Hospice Aide Sonya came and managed to give her a bed bath, wash and blow dry her hair.  She was, of course, completely unresponsive during that activity.  Her fever was not very high this morning, but enough to warrant giving her a Tylenol suppository.  This evening her temperature seemed to the touch to be back to normal, so we did not give her the Tylenol.  We have only given her two of the lowest recommended doses of Morphine, since she has seemed comfortable most of the time today.

While there still appears to be none of the expected mottling of the skin, she seems fragile enough to die at any time.  It is getting harder to compartmentalize my thinking and feeling.  The kids seem to share that problem.  We go about our business as if we are accomplishing something, doing various tasks, talking with folks on the phone and those who came by today.  Then we walk into that room and look at the person we love and can’t bear the thought of losing from our lives here on earth, and the pain wells up, ready to break open.  It is hard to maintain the boundaries between the compartments in our lives.  When I am doing other things, outside that room, thoughts of doing whatever it is with her gone from here breach the boundary between the compartments.

There have been moments when pleasing gestures and gifts have lifted our spirits.  Last evening, Neighbor Harlene brought over food to us, so that we would have dinner tonight.  We already started on the chocolate chip cookies last night.  Later today, Janet and Joe, former parishioners, brought over some supper.  Both meals could be prepared with portions for tonight and tomorrow and portions to go in the freezer for later times.  I will appreciate having nourishment readily available after things settle.

Pr. Jim came by to spend some time.  I shared thoughts about funeral plans and he was very willing to help us have a service meaningful to us as well as any who gather with us.  We have the chance of having two wonderful vocalists sing at the service Carol and Kristen.  Carol has been a part of the congregation for many years, directing the choir for a large portion of those years, singing solos often.  Kristen (Carol’s voice student for many years) is based in Boston (has sung with the Boston Pops), sings professionally, and has as wonderful a soprano voice as I have ever heard.  Those plans are still in the works.  We will see what finally is possible.  We will talk with the Director of Worship about hymns and special music. In our tradition we are free to use joyful music rather than dirges at funerals.  We leave with a sense of victory rather than defeat.

Sister Gayle, Niece Diana and Friend Joy have agreed to team up to handle the logistics of a memorial gathering in Northern Illinois for all those who would not be able to travel here for the service.  The plan is that it will include food, memory sharing and a short worship service in an informal setting.

Then, at one point today, the doorbell rang and there was delivered a small vase of flowers, yellow roses, yellow alsternaria and white daisy mums.  Both Mary Ann and I enjoy having cut flowers in the house. We just love flowers outside or inside.  That vase of flowers perked our spirits.  Gretchen, who sent them, was in the first Confirmation class when I arrived in 1996 at the church from which I retired as Sr. Pastor two years ago.  She is soon to complete her thesis as Dr. Gretchen.

A foam wedge was delivered this afternoon to help keep Mary Ann in a position that avoids putting more pressure on the red spots that are threatening to provide serious discomfort.  We are putting Tegaderm patches on the red spots.  They are an almost transparent thin plastic patch that has just enough cushioning to give the skin a chance to heal when red spots appear.  If any of the spots transition to open sores, the Hospice Nurse will come and put a dressing on them.

I have taken a number of breaks from writing to go in and check on Mary Ann’s breathing.  I have thought about what it feels like to be in this time that some readers of this post have called sacred.  Pr. Jim noted a sense of peace when he has visited.  It is a time of very complex dynamics.  There is hardly a more sacred time than the last moments of life.  Death certainly is what helps define life. Someone observed that there is absolutely no difference in the amount of matter, the weight, the chemical composition of a body before and immediately after death.  There is one difference.  Life is gone.  Life does not have material substance, but look at the difference it makes.

These moments of transition certainly are sacred.  There is peace.  There is pain. The one does not diminish the other. Is it peaceful pain or painful peace.  At any rate, they are folded together into one sacred time in our lives, Mary Ann’s, the Kids and Grandkids, and mine.

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I called the Hospice Nurse when I saw Mary Ann shivering at bedtime last night.  She suggested I take her temperature, and if it was over 100 degrees, she told me to give her some Tylenol (rectally, since she can’t take oral meds any more).  Her temperature was below that.  I covered her to help with the chills and eventually they subsided.

When I got up this morning, the first thing I did was take her temperature.  When taken under the arm it is necessary to add a degree to get the actual internal temperature.  It measured 102.8 plus the added degree, 103.8.  I gave her the Tylenol and phoned the Hospice Nurse.

When Hospice Nurse Emily came over, she checked Mary Ann’s vital signs.  The fever was a little lower than earlier this morning, but not much.  Mary Ann’s blood pressure was fine, her oxygen level was fine (she is receiving oxygen), her lungs were clear, her heart rate was up some.

Nurse Emily said that her heart is beginning to work harder.  The fever is often a part of the process.  Mary Ann clearly has begun actively dying.  Emily said it this way, “Probably not today, but I could be wrong.”  She added later in the day that she expects Mary Ann to be gone by Friday based on her assessment of her condition.

Those words were very difficult to hear.  Lisa, Micah and I keep telling each other how much we just don’t like this.  It is, of course, a good thing for Mary Ann to move to the next leg of her journey, free of all the problems she has endured here.  With that said, we still don’t like it.

The good news is that Mary Ann continues to appear very comfortable.  The fever has edged down a bit.  Mary Ann is not particularly pleased when we jostle her around and poke things in her bottom, but that is just part of it.  Other than those times, she rests peacefully.  Her breathing is not labored.  Her heart rate continues to increase.  Her normal is about 60.  When Emily checked it this morning it had risen a little over 80.  The last time I took her pulse this evening it was about 100.

We have spent the day talking about the funeral, whom to call, what to do back in Northern Illinois where we both grew up and still have family and friends.  The words come out of my mouth as if we are just making funeral plans for someone.  My gut is doing flips while wearing cement overshoes.  (I have no idea what that means other than that it hurts like Hell.)

I have had to finally start thinking about the afterlife.  Hers will be great.  Mine, not so much.  I started making a list of things that I will need to do.  Discontinue Lifeline, let the Bath Aide know not to come — very many more things like that.  What will we do with Mary Ann’s clothes (I can hardly stand writing this) and when.

As I am writing this I am trying to move inches along the path of coming to terms with what is happening.  This morning, long time friend, John from KC, called and offered support.  Later today, Volunteer Coordinator Mary and Parish Nurse Margaret stopped by, brought cookies and spent a little time with Mary Ann.  She, of course, does not respond at all any more, but it is very likely that she hears what is being said to her.

Son-in-Law Denis and the girls headed back to Kentucky.  Lisa has stayed for a few more days, depending, of course, on what happens when.  Micah, Becky and Chloe spent the afternoon and evening here.

We are in a time warp.  There is no sense of what this day is in relationship to other days.  Minutes seem like hours.  Days seem like an eternity — but not long enough to be with Mary Ann.  Sometimes we wander around the house.  Sometimes we eat.  Sometimes we talk.  Sometimes we sit.

We now have all the elements of the Comfort Kit that Hospice talks about.  We have Morphine if there is respiratory distress or severe pain.  There is none so far, other than the heart pain that subsided with the oxygen and one tiny dose of the Morphine.  We have Tylenol tablets for the fever and will receive Tylenol suppositories tomorrow from Hospice.  We have Ativan tablets and will receive Ativan suppositories tomorrow.  Ativan will be used if and when the agitation hits that often comes and the dying process moves along.

I just glanced at the last few posts on this blog.  I can’t believe how fast things are moving.  There are some things that are helping us as we move through this time in all our lives.  I have probably said them before, but I just can’t remember at the moment.  One thing that helps is that there is not so much as a hint of wondering about Mary Ann’s secure connection to a wonderful future.  We don’t have the tools to form a picture of it, but we have no need to do so.  Our faith life as a family allows us to relax and accept the gift of a future given freely by a Loving God.  There is no time that we need to spend with any distress about her future.

We have a strong family with no baggage, no unfinished business to complicate the process of letting go.  We accept that we are not perfect.  I have not given Mary Ann perfect care, but there is a forgiving Lord who frees me from that guilt.  Mary Ann has an estranged Brother, whom I have promised to tell that she forgives him.  The result of all that is that we have the privilege of feeling the pain and sadness, celebrating her impending freedom, all with a peace that winds through our grief.  There will be tears, sometimes uncontrollable, but no despair. We don’t have to like it, but will will live through it, hopefully stronger than before, more compassionate, free to live meaningfully no matter what comes next.

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I spent almost an hour this evening with someone whose family Hospice told is in his last twelve to twenty-four hours of life.  Before retiring last summer, my career had been to serve as what in my religious tradition is a called a pastor.  What I have to say in this post is not only for those who happen to have a spirituality like mine, or any spirituality for that matter. 

First, I have a belief system that is secure and unwavering.  There are tools at my disposal when spending time especially with the dying, tools that offer profound hope in the face of death.  I make no apology for having such a belief system.  I do not ask the readers of this blog to share that belief system or any belief system.  It is my hope that my reflections on death have implications for all of us as we finally have to face the inevitable.  We cannot make it go away.  As helpful as denial is in the day to day celebration of life in the face of chronic illness, death must be faced for there to be any real joy in life.  Otherwise we are left with a spectre hanging over us that steals the joy from our days. 

Doc and I talked about how hard it is to leave behind people who are loved deeply.  Who will take care of them?  When the time comes, both those giving the care and those receiving the care have to come to terms with the separation that comes with death. 

Let’s not tiptoe around this one.  I have heard the plight of folks much farther into the unbearable pain of caring for someone who no longer recognizes them, someone who can do nothing for him/herself, who cannot converse, who is for all intents and purposes gone with only a shell of their former self left.  I have felt their frustration as they talked about struggling to love what is left of someone they loved deeply before the Dementia took its toll.  

How can they not long for death to come and release their Loved One from their helplessness?  How can they not long for death to release them to live again if they see death to be transitional rather than terminal.  This one is hard for me to talk about since Mary Ann and I are still far from that point.  In fact, I am anxious to write a post on Caregivers’ Romance, which by the way will be rated PG 45.  It is rated that way to warn our children and their spouses who may put what I write in the category once named by our Daughter-in-Law, “too much information.” 

For tonight, it is death that is on my mind.  Is death friend or foe?  While my theology has clear language addressing that matter, the experience of folks with whom I have interacted over the years is not simply theological.  It is experiential.  When death comes in a sudden, tragic way, when the victim is young, death is the enemy.  When someone has lived fully for many decades, when someone has fought a terribly debilitating disease, death may very well be a welcomed friend. 

The truth is, of course, that death just is.  However we define it or describe how we feel about a particular death, it just is.  We have no say about whether or not it will come.  It will come.  How it comes, when it comes is worthy thoughtful reflection and discussion.  Whether or not any one of us will die is not up for discussion.  We will. 

 My goal with Doc was to help him find his way to peace.  The way to peace is to finally decide to let go.  Both Caregivers and Carereceivers have similar problems.  Neither wants to let the other go.  Each thinks that by hanging on to the other, they can change the inevitable.  Each thinks they can keep the other for them to love.  They can keep the love alive, just not the body. 

Until we come to terms with death, we cannot live meaningfully — sadness is unbearable, and joy is shallow and fleeting.  We experience little deaths every time there is a separation.  There are tearful goodbye’s at the doors of preschool classrooms and college dorms and weddings.  I remember my Mother commenting that when we returned home for a visit as an adult family, when we left, she had to get in the car, go out and do something.  It was hard to say goodbye even then. 

We don’t want to let go.  If we don’t, however, if we don’t let go of that little one trying to learn to walk, that little one will never learn to walk.  If we love our child, we have to let go.  Otherwise it is not love, it is ownership, possession.  It is about us, not the child. 

Yes, to let go at the time of death is an act of love.  It is an act of love for a Caregiver to finally say, “I love you, I will miss having you here, but it is okay for you to leave.  I will be okay.”   It is an act of love, a final beautiful gift to the Caregiver and those who want so badly to keep the one they love, it is a gift to say to them, I love you, I will miss you, but it is okay for me to leave leave you now.  You are free to live. 

For the dying whose capacity to communicate has long since gone, the words of love may not be there, but the person who lived in that body before the Dementia took him/her still leaves behind love from better times.  The care you have given, maybe long after romantic feelings have been snuffed out, carries within it, love from former times.  Death can free memories of better times to surface and overshadow the struggles and the pain and the hopelessness. 

Death by its very existence gives life its sweetness.  In his dying, Doc is touching his family in a way that has folded into it an intimacy that can be found nowhere else.  I have had the privilege of experiencing a moment of that deeply moving intimacy. 

Is death friend or foe?  Sometimes it can be a merciless foe.  Tonight, as it approaches, it is a wise and thoughtful friend – a gift ready to be opened.