Letting Nature Take Its Course: 2

This is the second of three posts which chronicle Marlene’s
final journey home. Part One, which introduces this series, is here.

April 9th, 2018

I checked in with Ron and Marlene yesterday evening. Much to my amazement, Marlene was her feisty, smiley old self. She was lying on her stomach instead of her back. As soon as I walked in, she asked me about Ron’s taxes. She’s done his taxes for years and, knowing that tax time is close, she was concerned. I told her that all the financial info she had stashed in Ron’s red folder had been delivered to a tax person in Roanoke.

She grabbed my hand and gave it a tight squeeze. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Then she talked about the cards and letters she’d been receiving. She couldn’t understand why so many people were suddenly writing to her. I saw an unopened envelope lying on the bed.“Do you want to see who sent this one?” I asked. “Sure.”

It was a long letter from Jess, whose family lived at Light Morning many years ago. Marlene has remained close to them, so I read the letter aloud. Marlene listened attentively to the news about each of the family members and each of the family’s cats.

Later, Marlene said she wanted to have a chiropractor in Blacksburg fix her back. Ron paused for a moment before answering. Then he gently reminded her about the childhood injury to her back, the progressive osteoarthritis in her spine, and the cancer.

“No one can fix those things for you,” he continued. “You’re just going to have to learn to live with it.”

There was a brief silence as Marlene tried to take this in.

“Well, I’ve had seventy-seven years,” she said.

“Seventy-seven beautiful years,” Ron replied.

Marlene gave him a delighted smile. Then she reached up to where Ron was standing beside the bed, grabbed the sides of his face with her hands, and pulled him down to give him a kiss. A second and third kiss quickly followed.

Thus revved up, Marlene wanted to get out of bed and practice walking around. So we helped her maneuver to the edge of the bed and stand up. But she could only manage a step or two before she froze up in pain and had to return to her bed, grimacing.

“Do you want some pain meds?” Ron asked.

Marlene nodded. So Ron squeezed two droppers of liquid morphine into her mouth. She settled back, waiting for the medication to take effect.

We’ve been told that caring for someone in hospice is like being on a roller coaster ride. Rather than a progressive decline, there can be alternating highs and lows. Moments of blessedly pain-free lucidity can give way to agony, followed by medicated sedation. And there’s no reliable way to gauge how long this roller coaster ride might last.

Shifting Marlene from lying on her back to lying on her stomach was probably pivotal. With the weight of her body not pressing against her hyper-sensitive back, she has less need for the meds and more intervals of heightened awareness. She also has more interest in food and liquids, which will allow her to stretch out her remaining days and weeks.

None of this, of course, alters her overall trajectory. Another Bob Dylan line comes to mind. “We’re living in the shadows of a fading past, trapped in the fires of time.”

Marlene’s trapped in a recalcitrant body. No heroic medical interventions or strong will to recover are going to work. Ultimately, it’s a forced surrender to superior forces.

We all know that aging and death are as natural as childhood and birth. But this knowing seldom goes bone deep. For those of us caring for Marlene, the looming question of how and when we will face our own final days is no longer a safe abstraction. Watching someone we’ve been close to for decades slowly die keeps that question alive. Like a live wire.

How special, too, that Marlene’s time of dying comes as we’re planting this year’s garden. It’s therapeutic for me to get my hands back in the dirt. After the long dormancy of winter, the lettuce, spinach, and peas are stretching toward the sun.

Last fall, Marlene ordered a packet of Blue Beech tomato seeds. They’re one of her favorites. She kept the packet under a piece of glass that sits on top of her card table desk so she could see it daily through the winter. After she went down, I told her I’d plant some for her. She smiled.

May 4th, 2018

This update has been a while coming. Spring is a busy season at Light Morning. The big news is that Marlene has been off her pain meds for 10 days! It started when she was turned over to lie on her stomach instead of her back. Then one of the hospice nurses worked on her impacted colon and got her bowels moving again. These two changes eased much of the pain she’d been enduring.

The next step came when Marlene started climbing out of her hospital bed and spending more time on a mat on the floor. There was a transitional stage when Ron tried to get her back into the bed, only to have her slide onto the floor again, which is where she clearly wants to be. He finally surrendered. Now they’re both sleeping on mats on the floor and the hospital bed has become extraneous.

Ron tried sleeping in that bed a night or two and found it uncomfortable. Just as you can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, Ron couldn’t understand Marlene’s preference for the floor until he’d slept in her bed.

Without her regular doses of medicated pain relief, Marlene is more present. She still has significant confusion and/or dementia, but she’s no longer drugged out and comatose for a good part of each day. She has also been eating more; mostly fruits and salads. She’s not drinking much, though.

A couple of days ago, I told Marlene that the Blue Beech tomatoes I had started from her seeds were growing just fine. She was happy to hear they’d be in the garden again this year. Then I lay down beside her so she wouldn’t have to crane her neck to see me as we talked. Other than being on the floor together, we were having an ordinary conversation.

Acting on impulse, I got out my cell phone and asked if I could take her picture.

“Sure,” she said. “Go ahead.”

There was hardly any space between our heads and the shelves beside her desk, so I held the phone out at arm’s length to get the photo.

“That’s probably the first selfie you’ve ever taken,” I joked.

Marlene, of course, has no idea what a selfie is. She’s never used a cell phone or a computer. I’m sharing this somewhat haunting photo because it captures a Marlene who is gradually disengaging from her world and from her sense of self.

Marlene’s “selfie”

Marlene sometimes asks me what house Joyce and Lauren and I are living in. (Lauren left for college 18 years ago.) She asks Ron what house they lived in before they came to this house. (It’s been 45 years.) She asks him when they’ll be going home.

“I want to go home,” she says.

Some of you may recognize the t-shirt Marlene’s wearing in this photo. It says “Basket Maker Basket Maker.” Looking at her shirt inspires me to share another picture. This one is from 30 years ago. Ron and Marlene are selling their baskets at a fair. Look at those young kids!

Marlene and Ron with their baskets at a craft show

One final photo really rewinds the years. This one is from 1973 in Virginia Beach, soon after Joyce and I first met Ron and Marlene. Marlene is giving Joyce some typing tips. As most of you know, Marlene was a prodigious typist: blazing speed and few errors.

Marlene and Joyce

I keep looking at these three photos. Marlene’s age ranges from 33 to 77. In the second two pictures she is fully engaged. In the first, she’s disengaging. The slow but fast unfolding of a life.

Not that some of Marlene’s old fire doesn’t occasionally re-surface. When Ron recently asked her to do something, she glared at him.

“Who do you think you are,” she barked, “telling me what to do?!”

Flare-ups like that are rare, however. Marlene is mostly cooperative. And she’s increasingly introverted. She wonders where home is. And she wants to go there.

The third portion of this three-part story will be posted next week.

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