SILVER LINING CHRONICLES -
GROWING OLD IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART
Dr. Oz says that a heart will beat for as long as it has reason to.
This is one woman's story.
Her name was Natalie and I continued my weekly visits throughout the spring, summer and fall of that year. Sometimes I'd arrive to find her in fitful sleep and, essentially, unaware that I was there. Other times, I'd enter her room to learn she was off to a doctor's appointment for tests or to the hospital for some brief observation. A couple of times, she rather pointedly asked me to leave as "she felt embarrassed and didn't want me to see her this way." Naturally, I understood and complied.
About 6 weeks in, for her 91st birthday, I walked into her room carrying a bouquet of flowers. Her eyes showed recognition but she was too weak to smile. "Happy Birthday," I said and sat down besides her. "Enough," she whispered, "no more birthdays." I looked into her eyes and nodded imperceptibly. I knew just what she meant and I didn't try to change her mind or point out all the great times she still had ahead of her.
Natalie was very ill and in constant pain with various ailments. Breathing was labored with only one lung and sitting was difficult with pins in her hips. Going anywhere was tedious since she was often hooked up to machines. To avoid causing any harm to her fragile bones, moving her from bed to wheelchair took several large men and a bizarre, orchestrated maneuver with a sheet. A swallowing difficulty forced the nursing home to keep her on a diet of pureed foods. An accomplished cook, she hated this liquid nourishment and, more often than not, refused to eat anything at all.
At some point, we discovered through conversation, the most amazing coincidence. Her grandson and my daughter were both getting married on the same day, at the same place and time. The venue could accommodate more than one wedding party and August 14, 2011 was to be a memorable day for the both of us.
From that day forward, we spoke of little else. Every visit began with a countdown of how many months (and then weeks and days) were left before the Big Day! Through several setbacks, it kept her going. She was determined to be around for this very special occasion. She had a strong will to live.
"I'm very sick, I'm not having a good day," she said to me. With the perfect timing of a professional comedienne, she added, "Yesterday wasn't so good either," and I smiled broadly. Though it wasn't meant to be a joke, it came off sounding like one and I responded in kind. "How sick can you be if you're still making jokes?"
Through all the hardships, there were times I could still see the spirited and stubborn Natalie. I learned that in her younger days, she was a union organizer and that little tidbit of information certainly rang true with the woman I came to know. During Natalie's last few months in the nursing home, when the pain seemed to be taking its toll or, perhaps, as a way of bringing attention to herself (we really never knew), she acquired the particularly unsettling behavior of screaming at odd times. I suppose she didn't want anyone to forget that she was there and she was suffering.
On one occasion, when she was admonished by the nursing staff to be quiet as she was annoying all the other patients in the cafeteria, she stopped abruptly and comically retorted, "Oh, I would think they'd look forward to it." At that unexpected response, I laughed to a point where the entire lunch staff on duty felt the need to shoot me dirty looks, a reaction which I perfectly understood. Way back when, when my children were little, I could often be heard saying , "Don't encourage him/her as a follow-up to various childish antics."
One day, after her 3rd hospital visit in a relatively short period of time, I visited and found she really wasn't herself - lethargic, uncommunicative and barely able to stay awake. Knowing that music can bring you back to another place and time, I asked her what songs she liked to listen to. She whispered she didn't listen to any but I persisted. "What did you like when you were younger? What did you dance to at your wedding?" That's when she suddenly remembered, "Oh, How We Danced." The Anniversary Song. She was happily married for more than 50 years to her husband, before his passing, but she spoke of him often. She missed him very much.
With the miracle of technology, I pulled out my smart phone and brought up Al Jolson's version on YouTube. I put it to her left ear but she couldn't hear it. Knowing that one ear is generally stronger than the other in hearing impaired individuals, I switched to her right. Now she could hear. The first 10-15 seconds were agonizing. I saw her face contort with pain as she listened and remembered the lyrics she had not heard in such a long time.
She threw her head back and sobbed dry and silent tears. Her unexpected and extreme reaction frightened me and I almost pulled the phone away. After just a few more seconds, the emotional turmoil she was obviously experiencing passed. In place of pain, there was peace and it was explicitly displayed on her face. She closed her eyes and was, clearly, transported to more youthful, vibrant days. I could see her mind was flooded with memories. She listened all the way until the end of the song and never opened her eyes again during that visit. Then, she fell asleep.
At long last, the wedding day arrived. Preparation was hectic and grew increasingly more stressful as we received 10 1/2 inches of torrential downpour and widespread flooding on what should have been a glorious summer's eve. The ceremonies meant to be held outdoors were moved inside but, even with these adjustments, the weddings were beautiful as these things always are. Natalie, who traveled to and from the catering hall by ambulette and needed a caregiver by her side the entire time, enjoyed a front row seat at her grandson's ceremony and managed to stay for several hours before succumbing to fatigue. She was very proud.
For several weeks thereafter, Natalie and I poured over wedding photos and discussed every little nuance of the affairs until it became obvious that there was nothing left to say. Briefly, we considered setting a new goal such as the birth of a grandchild/great grandchild but we quickly rejected that target as impractical and ultimately, too far away in the future.
Afterwards, there was a noticeable change in her demeanor. With nothing new to aim for, her fighting spirit was gone. One day she fell from her bed and the broken leg she suffered landed her in a hospital. In a cast that weighed almost as much as she did, Natalie was miserable. While her doctors planned for an operation, she retreated into herself.
The last time I saw Natalie, she refused to speak to me or make any eye contact. For 45 minutes, I sat on her hospital bed and held her hand. Occasionally, a nurse would wander in, observe her behavior and offer the unsolicited information that "her vitals were strong." I said nothing but knew instinctively that it wasn't enough . When it was time to leave, I kissed her. It was only then that she looked at me and mouthed the words, "I'm sorry."
On my way home, I felt unusually sad. I was overcome with the urge to hum the tune associated with one of David's Psalms - The Lord is my shepherd...As I repeated it over and over, louder and stronger, tears rolled down my face and driving became difficult. I arrived home and announced to my family that I would not be seeing Natalie again. I felt certain she would pass away before my next visit.
The week went by without incident or notification and I'd begun thinking I'd made a mistake. Clearly, timing this crucial was never meant to be in our control. Before long, it was Monday afternoon and, time again, for my trip to the hospital. Unexpectedly, my daughter came home from school and asked if I could give her a lift somewhere she needed to be. I agreed, deciding that since all was going well, I could just as easily delay my visit until the next day.
Heading home, my cell phone rang and my daughter responded to the call. Together, we learned that this lovely lady had left us in the previous hour. Her son was by her side. Without divine intervention, I would have been there as well, as all this transpired during what would have been my regular visiting hour. It was an incredibly difficult and emotional time and belonged only to the immediate family. Natalie and I had already said our goodbyes.
On an unusually tranquil November day, replete with brilliant sunshine and warmish temps, we buried the woman whose brief presence in my life left a dramatic impact. I miss her terribly but, I'm also pleased that, after all the complications Natalie endured in her last year, she was finally granted her only wish - there would be no more birthdays.
No matter how you spend your day, come home to this
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Graduate REALTOR Institute
Jill Sackler, NYS Real Estate Broker Associate based on Long Island's South Shore
Specializing in Lifecycle Real Estate Transitions
©Jill Sackler 2010