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(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

She’s going on a journey, but she’s not coming back—not home to her closest loved ones nor to any of us who have known her along the longer journey of her life. We can only thank her for the gifts she gave to us, wave goodbye, and wish her peace.

She told me she had planned to cruise the Danube with her husband, but instead she gets to go home for good.

She’s in her last days, asking for her coat and bags so she can move on. I’m just praying she’ll understand that for once she can stop worrying about what to take with her—she can leave her baggage behind—finally.

She was our critique group friend—she told us her stories and we told her ours. When writing is mostly personal, it’s hard not to get to know well the people who gather to help you string together your words more effectively. She had the gift of encouragement, both as a teacher of children and as a critiquer of our words.

Once she and I both moved into electronic writing, she gave more kudos and comments to my postings than I ever passed back—and now I must remember to pay them forward to others as she always did for me.

She met me at her door last week, her skin and eyes a shocking shade of yellow. I swallowed my fears and went to greet her. The point of our visit was not my discomfort—instead it was one last chance to encourage her.

And so we sat on her patio—freshly cleared of Cottonwood cotton by her husband Dave, yet the cotton continued to drift onto us, snow-like in its abundance. She joked that she would turn white from all that cotton—and then she noticed her skin.

“Oh dear, I am yellow. Dave is going to be so upset,” she stated.

No doubt she knew what turning so yellow meant, but her first thought was to worry for those who would see her skin and know how soon her final journey would end.

She’s going on this journey too soon—yet we must let her go.


(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

There are many good reasons the Church and the ancients before them picked late October/early November for remembering the departed. As days shorten and nights lengthen at the same time the sun’s rays grow weaker, many of us turn inward. Just a few short thoughts can lead to thinking of those we have lost, as well as our own mortality.

Our family used to own a medical supply business and we always noticed that deaths began to increase around Halloween and continued at a higher level through sometime in the spring, even among clients who appeared relatively stable and healthy. Despite living in relatively comfortable times, it’s just harder to live in the colder months. Maybe the light matters more than we know and not just to those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

This year on All Saints’ Sunday, I listened as my mother’s name was read and a bell tolled in honor of her joining the saints eternal. In my brightest moments I see her conducting one of the heavenly choirs or playing along from the piano or with some percussion instrument. I was glad our choir was singing a spiritual, “Keep Your Lamps,” accompanied by nothing other than a drum’s beat—my mother would have loved the music selected for the year her life was honored.

And yet, she was not sitting in our pews to hear us sing.

I’ll tell you over and again that I didn’t just lose my mother this past January—no, Alzheimer’s took her from us years before she closed her weary eyes. So, in a way, I’ve already grieved who she was, but that doesn’t mean certain milestones don’t remind me of her final walk in her last year. In fact, sometimes I’m shocked to realize I am missing some of the simple things we could do together even when she was no longer “my” mother.

November’s arrival reminds me of the real beginning of the end for her: she started receiving hospice care a week before Thanksgiving. What’s true is that I am still grieving many pieces of that journey—or I wouldn’t still be so angry about how her hospice care did not provide the kind of support for her, us, and her care facility staff that is such a godsend to so many others.

I do my best to turn my memories to the little things that did work and how we learned as we went. After an unsettling Thanksgiving celebration within her larger community, we pulled back for a private celebration during the community’s Christmas dinner and experienced much greater peace and joy for her and for us. Sherman and I learned to enjoy feeding her, hungry as she was to partake of sustenance long after her own hands could not keep up with her appetite. When Intern Jess and I sang to her in German the carols of her childhood, we all had tears in our eyes.

The other images—the uncomfortable and/or painful ones—I try not to dwell on, but their presence tells me that part of letting her go must involve letting go of what happened, good and bad.

I was not the only one whose eyes teared up on All Saints’ Sunday—for some it is missing someone, pure and simple, and for others, there are the added losses that come with witnessing or walking someone towards a hard death.

As much as many of us would prefer to keep our mourning private and maybe even unstirred, it is good to have a day to remember corporally those whom we have loved—and to know that there are others who walk in similar shoes. Together we can walk in light—and through the dark.

After great loss, silence often follows.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone . . . (W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”)

Ft. Lewis College, (c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

Our mother’s clock finally stopped around 7:45, the evening of January 20, 2011. Would that we could have cut off the telephone—plus taken back the last few years of losing our mother/grandmother/aunt/sister/in-law/friend/teacher to the long goodbye of Alzheimer’s.

Of course, the relentless ticking of Time has not stopped—almost two weeks have passed since I sat down by her bed on Tuesday, January 18, and realized this would be no ordinary week, even if I didn’t know the exact moment when the hands on the clock would finish their movements. Pastor Ruthann, who had said the place where my mother would go to meet her maker is a holy one, would likely say that that was also our family’s holy week.

Our loss, God’s gain, and Mom’s return to herself—only much, much better.

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

Life’s blessings often come in the small moments during such times. When my exercise friend and neighbor Diana asked me how I was doing, I shared where we had arrived on our journey. Turns out she used to work as a hospice volunteer coordinator. She knew what to say: yes, it was a blessing for her to go, as her mind and body had been abandoning her spirit, but it remained a big loss. So true—she was and is my only mother.

After talking with Mom’s caregivers and her doctor, I knew my brother Scott needed to join me in the vigil. Yet, January’s weather is capricious at best and dangerous at worst. Forecast: freezing rains across the prairie, any route he could take. He was stuck finding a last minute seat on a plane.

So I sat by her side alone again on that Wednesday, waiting for his early evening arrival. I told her often her son would be with her later in the night, silently praying he would make it in time.

My laptop played music she would have liked—the sounds helped me, whether or not they could reach her. Throughout the vigil we heard songs such as Aretha Franklin’s gospel greats, both contemporary music and Mozart’s “Requiem” sung by musicians from my church, and—though stuck in her own winter—Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” Above the music the oxygen concentrator hummed and the expansions and contractions of the mattress hissed. I listened for her breaths, now deep, now shallow, maintaining a pseudo-rhythm. I touched her wrists and felt the warmth.

Could she hear me? I did not know. But as I showed her caregivers the slideshow on my laptop screen, I told her stories—not just the facts, but the funny tales as well.

Our rush hour storm turned a trip to the airport into a three-hour odyssey for me—much longer than Scott spent in the air! The storm had mostly died down by the time Sherman and I brought Scott to Mom. Later that night, we left her sleeping peacefully.

Together, the next day Scott and I passed the time at her bedside. In the morning, while she was wakeful, we offered our own voices—gifted by her teaching— as we shared the songs of our youth and those she played in church. Scott—he of the perfect memory—didn’t even say anything when I inserted “la, la, la’s” or made up lyrics! After all, she was a church organist. Although the notes were hard-wired in her brain, the words were not. Music itself was her first language. In those moments of song, Mom connected with us in a way she could not otherwise.

She was stable and sleeping comfortably throughout the afternoon. Hospice had offered a volunteer to sit by her through the night—we accepted as her condition had not changed much for several hours. We expected Dee, the volunteer, to arrive sometime around 10:00 so we could go home to sleep.

When she arrived three hours earlier, we were surprised. She suggested we could get something to eat and then come back.

Scott and I returned home, where Sherman made us all dinner. With our plates almost emptied, the phone rang. Mom’s clock had stopped on the worst of her times while the best of her times had begun—she was whole once more—and home with her Father.

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

Yes, she was our North, South, East, and West—but how we continue to live our own lives is how we best honor her.

Consider my silence broken.

In Honor of Elda Mae (Ritter) Lange: June 25, 1930 – January 20, 2011

(c) 2010 Sherman Lambert

Apparently it’s not too late to get more support. All I’ve heard from other people is how hospice care for their loved ones has helped them, too. And, yet, I mostly feel that the hospice service has fulfilled its promise only to Mom—and that’s really a maybe since I haven’t gotten much information from them.

Still, as I further digested being left out of the equation about Mom’s dietary need changes, I realized that’s not how it’s supposed to happen. I have a cell phone and voice mail—I’m not inaccessible. At my Alzheimer’s support meeting on Wednesday, my explanation for what had happened rang a little hollow. It’s one thing to be upset about a change, but it’s another thing not to know about it. A conversation with my therapist the next day also helped me clarify my thoughts on the matter.

The more I looked back, the less I saw that I liked. Mom’s been under hospice care for two months now. I was told I’d receive calls from the nurse after she visited, plus she would write in a notebook put inside the nightstand. The notebook’s last entry is December 7. I believe I’ve received about two calls, both back in November or early December. Yes, when I call, I do get responses, but I have to initiate the contact.

One of those contacts wasn’t really that satisfactory if I think harder about it. Turns out Mom’s regular nurse had two weeks off at Christmas and time off at Thanksgiving. I am sure she deserves the time as caring for dying people must be so incredibly draining. But my mom doesn’t get a holiday from hospice needs—although I know she received care during those times, we didn’t really know how that went.

Because I was seeing mixed signs in her health, I called for an update. Her regular nurse was back on the job, but first had to review notes and then visit her before she could give me that update.

I think that’s a systemic failure. The organization should not only have nursing care covered for its patients, but also should have communications systems set in place to allow smooth transitions whenever its regular employees take well-deserved vacation days. If anything, most of us need more support not less during the holidays.

Part of my problem is that I don’t appear needy and it takes me awhile to notice when promises are not met. Nonetheless, that’s really not an excuse for not having the system set up to offer me help whether or not I ask for it.

The few times I met the nurse, she was running way behind due to emergencies. Surely the nature of hospice is often emergencies—does the company schedule its staff to allow for that? Or do the nurses have to pay the piper if they feel it’s important to give one patient more time—by giving the next patient less time? Or does the scheduler just keep them caring for patients all day, leaving little energy for reaching out to family?

So last night I steeled myself to go try to feed my mom again. I came straight from yoga—which often leaves me calmer—but when I had finished class, I was a bit upset. During relaxation our words for focus were “Let Be.” Surprisingly similar to “Let it Be,” no?

Although I know a big part of my job now is to let things happen as they must, that doesn’t mean we have to go through this transition without the support we are supposed to have available. Thank you to the staff at Mom’s facility for pointing out that not only weren’t we getting what was normally offered, but that we could still change providers to get our needs met, even at this late stage.

Yesterday Mom showed more signs of decline. The hospice chaplain had visited her earlier in the day and called me saying the facility staff told him she was slowing down in the last few days. Apparently, someone from hospice had also visited to bathe her. Despite the visits and noted changes, I had heard nothing from hospice from a medical perspective.

Look, this is pretty much my first experience dealing with hospice care on my own. Mom was really the one who handled this transition with Dad, even though we visited and tried to understand the process. All I know is that over the last two months I personally have gained very little from an experience so many cannot say enough good about: hospice. And Mom can’t tell me how well hospice has served her.

As soon as the facility director told me it wasn’t too late to get some better help for these final days, I agreed to their help with the changeover.

Part of me feels bad that I didn’t first voice my opinions to the first group, but the other part of me thinks, “Hey, it’s my mom who is dying.” Today I had to hang up my operations hat and put on my daughter hat.

That means I have more important things on my agenda than helping them improve how they handle patients. Of course, when I filled out the final paperwork, I did give the organization my reasons for the change, but I wasn’t interested in “fixing” our situation with them. At this point, my mom needs care from another source. End of conversation.

As I left her care residence today, a whole new team was busy conferring over what both Mom and our family needs. So glad to find people to hold all our hands on this journey . . .

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