Letting Nature Take Its Course: 3

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

Marlene drying veggies at Light Morning circa 1974

May 30th, 2018

May is a manic month in a homesteading lifestyle. Several of the past few evenings have seen me either hoeing or mowing by moonlight. Mama black bear passed through the orchard recently to taste a few small apples. Standing up on her hind legs to pull down one of the branches, she looked like a large man, with very good posture, in a bear costume.

Marlene is once more back in her bed and Ron is wrestling with myalgia. For the past month, Marlene has preferred to be on the floor. Ron didn’t want to keep the side rails of the hospital bed raised because it caused her to feel imprisoned, so Marlene became adept at lowering herself off the bed and onto the floor. Once down, she could scoot around from place to place using her hands and knees.

It was hard for Ron to minister to her needs, of course, while she was on the floor. But he was willing to do whatever it took to help Marlene regain some semblance of mobility. Her use of morphine also decreased significantly while she was out and about. For one stretch of ten days she didn’t need any at all.

Two problems soon developed, however. First, Ron started to experience pain in the large muscles of his arms and legs. Constantly getting down on his hands and knees to tend to Marlene’s needs became excruciating, especially in the morning hours. It got so debilitating that Ron began to wonder whether she might outlast him. So he decided to go on a 10-day juice fast. Currently he’s on day 8 and says that his muscle pain has lessened.

The other problem is that Marlene developed bed sores – they were actually rug burns — on her elbows and knees from pushing herself around on the floor. So on Sunday, Rick and Diane and Ron and I helped maneuver Marlene onto a sheet, lifted her back onto the hospital bed, and raised the side rails. Today one of the hospice RNs bandaged up her “bed sores.” She also gave Marlene a pedicure.

When I walked into the room this afternoon, Doro was there with Marlene. Different friends have been coming over for a couple of hours on a regular basis to give Ron some much-needed breaks from his round-the-clock care-giving responsibilities.

When Doro saw me, she started singing Happy Birthday. Marlene joined in. Then she gave me a birthday kiss.

I’ll close by sharing another photo. It shows Marlene asleep on the floor, shortly before she was returned to her bed.

Marlene asleep on the floor

June 20th, 1918

Marlene’s time of departure again seems to be drawing near. She is no longer able to eat anything and Ron has to give her water in half-teaspoon droppers because she can’t drink from a straw any more. Today she won’t accept even those small amounts.

Marlene’s heart rate continues elevate; it was over 120 this evening. Her breathing is fairly regular, but shallow. Marlene looks gaunt. She’s been comatose most of the day, as though deeply asleep. As the old saying goes, sleep and death are twin sisters.

We’ve been surprised before by Marlene’s ability to go for one more upward swing on that roller coaster ride that has but one ultimate destination. She may surprise us again. Yet that seems unlikely. It feels, instead, as though Marlene is getting ready to let go.

I recall a lovely sharing that she and I had just last week. I’m sitting on the chair beside her bed. She’s lying on her back with her head turned to the left, in what has become her fixed position. Since Marlene’s eyes are partly open, I position my face within her field of vision and say hi.

She responds with a lopsided smile of recognition.

“What do you think, Marlene? Are my hair and beard getting too long?”

Back in the day, Marlene would sometimes tell me that she preferred men to have short hair and be clean-shaven. Now she looks at my unkempt hair and graying beard.

“They’re good just as they are,” she says.

I smile. “Maybe we’re good. Just as we are.”

“We’re good,” she repeats softly. “We’re good. Just as we are.”

She gazes at me for a long moment, then closes her eyes and drifts off to who knows where.

Now, several days later, Marlene is noticeably less responsive. I’m sitting in the same chair by her bed, singing “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s been one of her favorite songs for as long as I’ve known her.

“Some glad morning when this world is o’er, I’ll fly away,
To my home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away, fly away.

“I’ll fly away, Oh glory, I’ll fly away, in the morning,
When I die, hallelujah bye and bye, I’ll fly away, fly away.

“When dark shadows come to fill the sky, I’ll fly away,
Like a bird o’er these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away, fly away. (chorus)

“Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away,
To a land where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away, fly away. (chorus)”

Marlene’s eyes fill with emotion. She tries to speak, but her mouth can no longer shape the words she wants to say.

* * *

Ron, meanwhile, has found a plausible diagnosis for the muscle pain that’s been plaguing him for several weeks. Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is an inflammatory disorder that causes severe and persistent muscle pain. It’s generally treated with prednisone.

For as long as I’ve known him, Ron has been a passionate advocate of alternative healing modalities. So he won’t be taking prednisone. He will instead look through his ample toolbox of holistic techniques for something that will ease his muscle pain without the risky side effects of a conventional medication.

I, meanwhile, am still trying to assimilate that Marlene’s in hospice and is about to leave this world. I recently spent time with two friends who were on their deathbeds. But they weren’t people I had lived with, worked with, squabbled with, and learned to love for forty years. Nor did I share in their dying times as fully as I’ve shared in Marlene’s. So having her be in hospice here at Light Morning has given my stew pot a good stir. We’re both on the same road; she’s just a few steps ahead of me.

Writing these updates has been part of my processing. The cauldron has been bubbling subliminally as well. Yesterday morning, for example, I woke out of sleep with these words: “We all do be on a trajectory; the arc and the ache of it.”

Despite the strange syntax, I wrote the words down. Over the next hour, several additional phrases came. One of the words, disambiguate, sent me to the dictionary. I’ll include the finished version below.

Please continue to hold Marlene and Ron in your prayers. They’ve been facing a formidable challenge for quite some time now, and have faced it with strength, grace, and compassion.

* * *

We all do be on a trajectory.
The arc and the ache of it.
The reach and the release.
The arising and passing away.

Early on, we’re both drawn and driven
to engage, to confront, to rectify.
Only later, in the fullness and the furnace of time,
do we step back, disambiguate, and let go.

June 24th, 2018

Just before noon today, Marlene took her last breath. On September 3rd, 1940, in a farmhouse in Wisconsin, Marlene took her first breath. Close to 78 years later, in the cabin she had shared with Ron for decades, she took her last. She was born at home and she died at home.

Earlier this morning, Marlene started to show the telltale signs that the end was near. Her breath became fast and shallow, her heart rate spiked, and her temperature rose. Then purplish discoloration showed up on her lower legs because her heart could no longer push sufficient blood to her extremities.

Ron and Joan, a longtime friend and neighbor who’s also a nurse, were at Marlene’s side as her breathing slowly became shallower, and less frequent, and then stopped.

Joyce and I were at the Friends Meetinghouse in Roanoke. I had turned off my cell phone during the meeting for worship, so we didn’t receive Ron’s updating voice-mails until after the rise of meeting. By the time we got home to Light Morning, the hospice RN had already arrived and was filling out the necessary paperwork.

Then it was just four of us — Ron, his sister Diane, Joyce, and I — gathered around a very still Marlene. We all shared an optical illusion that she was still breathing. After having watched her almost imperceptible breath for nearly a week, it seemed like her chest and abdomen were very slightly rising and falling, even though we knew they had become motionless.

During these last few days of keeping vigil, I came to feel that Marlene was my meditation teacher. For only by quieting the breath and disengaging the mind from a busy and bustling world do we learn to be still. Marlene was now fully disengaged. With the helium balloon of her essence no longer tethered to her body, she had finally become still. Truly and deeply and impossibly still.

After a while, the folks from the funeral home were at the door. They were kind and considerate. They took away what remained of Marlene and left behind a long-stemmed red rose. Tomorrow Ron and I will drive down to Roanoke to complete the arrangements. And the hospice folks, who have likewise been wonderful, will pick up the hospital bed.

So Ron now begins a new and uncharted chapter of his life. Grief mingles with relief. His deeply held belief that death is a natural part of life dances with his irrevocable loss. He’s happy that he and Marlene shared fifty years of their lives together. And that he could be there for her when she needed him. He gave her the best possible care, which allowed her to round out her days at home, with him and her beloved cats, and let nature take its course.

* * *

Marlene and Ron, circa 2004

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