by Rebecca Gagne-Henderson PhD, APRN, ACHPN
Tonight, I hold vigil over my mother-in-law’s near dead body. My husband has gone home to CT clear across the continent to return to work. His baby brother has returned to his job at LinkedIn. So, why am I here in Los Angeles? I am here to make sure that the cobblers’ children have shoes.
My mother-in-law is a colorful and exciting woman. Some may even describe her as a character. When my daughter was three, my mother-in-law bought her a foul-mouthed talking Triumph the Insult Comic Dog doll. When we opened it and listened, we laughed (she laughed the loudest) and we promptly gave it back to her. You think the Palliative Provocateur is irreverent…I have nothing on my mother-in-law. Since she rarely throws anything away, I suspect it is still in this house somewhere. I have heard stories of her in the 1970s going to an open house at her sons’ junior high school driving her black 1941 Cadillac sedan as she wore red cowboy boots, big-framed black sunglasses, and a full-length mink coat. The boys were mortified. It would also probably surprise you that she belonged to a hoity toity ladies’ philanthropy group and sat on the board alongside Paris Hilton’s grandmother and one of the Chandlers (as in Dorothy Chandler Pavilion). It seems out of character, doesn’t it?
The point of this anecdote is to relay something that I learned early in my hospice career. Every frail, weak, decrepit old patient was somebody else some time ago and has a story. What we see before us in the bed of a nursing home or a house whose walls, carpets, and curtains have seen better days belies their true story.
They were once young, vibrant, and vivacious people who flirted, dated, and fell in love. They may have done things that you can’t even imagine. They lived the history we’ve read and learned about.
I once cared for a man who oversaw the engineering and design of the stealth aircraft. He seemed so small in the bed but continued to carry himself with great kindness and an air of authority. He was a good sport and had a sense of humor. When I would take his temperature, I would tell him, “Keep your mouth shut…I bet not many people get away with saying that to you.” We would laugh, and he took it as the compliment it was meant to be.
I used to visit a woman in her home who was dying of COPD and was in chronic respiratory failure. Her boyfriend was her caregiver. Her home was not clean. I would have to lay newspapers on the chair to sit at her bedside. The house reeked of cats, and the three of them had the run of the house. She was unkempt, and I think the only genuine personal care she received was from the hospice aid that came three times a week.
One day, her boyfriend and I began to talk, and he shared her story with me. Back in the 1940s, during WWII, she worked for an airplane manufacturer in Burbank, California. It just so happened that she knew how to fly. The manufacturer gave her extra training in flying. She was not only Rosie the Riveter and worked on the first plane for the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but she was also the first woman to fly a fighter plane. She ferried that very first plane she had worked on to the base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Another patient I had was an old man who lived alone. He could still get around his apartment complex on his Little Rascal scooter. He, too, had COPD. The hospice was reluctant to provide services because he had no one to care for him. The hospice finally drew up a consent which stated he understood the risk and was willing to assume the risk and responsibility of living alone.
I went to see him one day, and we met in his bedroom. We usually met outside so he could take off his oxygen and smoke during our visit. There was a photo on the wall of a young Hispanic man in a Cracker Jack uniform. I asked, “Who is that handsome young man?” He laughed and answered, “That’s me”. He proceeded to tell me how he was based on a ship in Long Beach, California. It was during the Zoot Suit riots. In case you are unaware, riots occurred in 1943 between the sailors and the young Mexican-American men in the city. The fights occurred in bars and outside the bars on the streets.
He explained that he could never go on leave. He stayed on the ship the whole time. The problem was that when he went out, the Mexican-American men would beat him up for being a sailor, and the sailors would beat him up for being Mexican. He told me, “I can laugh about it now, but that was some time.”
I went to visit him one day, and no one answered the door. The apartment manager let me in, and we found him lying across his bed with his arm outstretched toward his inhaler. He died the way he wanted to, and I will never forget him.
It is an honor to listen to stories. As I write this, it occurs to me that I was in the presence of heroes with these patients. The last of that generation is dying. My only advice to you is to listen. These stories are one of the best things about being with the elderly as they near death.
ADDENDUM: A couple days later my BIL found Triumph. We turned him on for my MIL to listen and she laughed her arse off. Some things never change…thankfully.