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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year, Barb!






“What?” I exclaimed in disbelief. “They may put her on a ventilator?”  I clutched the handset and pressed it close to my ear, praying the conversation was just a bad dream.

But it wasn’t.

“The doctor said there’s not much they can do,” my friend Liz related, the tone of her voice revealing her stress. “Barbara’s breathing problems have worsened.”

“But I know she would never want to be on a ventilator, or any life-prolonging machine.”

“My thoughts exactly!”

“I’ll meet you in the hospital in a few minutes.” I hung up, feeling a lump in my throat, never a pleasant feeling. 

My friend Barbara, who I had known for several years, was at the end of life.  In her mid seventies, Barbara was a family friend who had become one of my best friends.  We went out often for dinner, or shopping, or simply a cup of coffee. 

“A colombian supreme coffee!” she would exclaim at the coffee shop, sporting her signature smile. 

I loved being around her.  She was fun, witty, and so full of life, at least prior to being saddled to supplemental oxygen. 

I walked into Barbara’s room in the hospital.  She looked more deteriorated than when I last saw her.  She gasped for air and tried, but couldn’t talk.  The nurse came in and put the BiPAP mask on her for a while.  

I was devastated.  

Memories of Barbara teaching Tai Chi and swimming lessons to other elderly ladies in the subdivision where she lived flooded my mind.  The woman that lay in the bed was not the Barbara I had known for years.    
I held her hand, fighting back tears.  I forced a smile as she gazed upon me.  I felt like a deceiver, knowing Barbara recognized that smile—a sad one—not the cheerful smile we had shared during our dinners, or at the movies.

Over the next few days I continued to visit Barbara.  Family and doctors talked about Hospice.  Barbara was aware of what was the subject of the discussions, and she had expressed she was ready to meet the Lord. 

“I’m glad our paths crossed,” Barbara said, holding my hand. “I love you.”

Tears rolled down my cheeks. “I love you too,” I managed to say, with broken words—and worse, with a broken heart. 

After saying our good-byes, I left the hospital, tearful, my mind swirling with confused thoughts.

This can’t be happening to me.  I shook my head as I realized I was losing my best friend.  My “adoptive Mom,” as some of our friends sometimes teased. 

I turned my worried thoughts into a fervent prayer, longing for comfort in the midst of my despair. 

In the following  days, Barbara’s condition unexpectedly  stabilized, and the hospital Physician decided that she should be sent to a nursing home.  He recommended long-term placement, and Hospice care.    

As the social worker at a nursing home, I wasn’t certain about how I would feel having my best friend as my patient and long-term resident.  I was unsure I’d properly handle the emotional load on top of my professional responsibilities.  Barbara had been so full of energy that I couldn’t bear the thought of watching her die.

Barbara’s family discussed the options for nursing home placement.  I preferred not to take part in that discussion. 
But her family decided she would come to the facility where I worked.  I appreciated the family’s trust, yet I had to warn them about my emotional involvement.  I had to warn my co-workers, as well, since I needed their support in keeping the balance.  

Barbara was admitted as a long-term resident.  Her family helped her to adjust to her room. They moved as many familiar furnishing from her home as possible so her room would be warm and inviting. 

After a few days, I felt happy that Barbara was there.  I visited with her daily, and we often met for lunch. 

“Sometimes I feel so down...so lost,” Barbara said to me one day, softly. “But when I see you around here, it makes me feel better.”  She held my hand. “This has been so hard for me, but you have helped me a lot.”

Her eyes welled with tears.  I hugged her and told her how much I loved her. 

As the weeks passed, Barbara was gradually able to walk more and more throughout the nursing home.  She decided to put a hold on the Hospice consultation, and instead, she wanted to have physical therapy.  Her strength was visibly returning.  Her breathing became less labored.  She started to participate in the facility activities, as much as she could tolerate, and made new friends.  Barbara became a popular resident. 

“She is so sweet.” I heard her nurse commenting. 

Barbara was also known for her good sense of humor.  She delighted the staff with her witty comments. 

Barbara remained faithful to our church and beliefs.  She continued receiving communion, and on the Sundays she felt up to it, I took her to church, and afterwards breakfast at our favorite restaurant.  Barbara loved it, and seemed happy.

“You no longer need  to be in a nursing home,” Barbara’s Physician told her, months later. “You can go back into the community.”

Barbara and I were so excited with the good news.

She had recovered! 

“It’s a miracle!” Our friend, Liz, rejoiced. 
“Yes, it’s a miracle.” I said. “The Lord heard our prayers.”

Barbara moved into a retirement community a year ago. We have continued being best friends, and see each other often.  

I stopped to see Barbara today.  As I walked into her apartment, the aroma of coffee embraced me.  As usual, colombian supreme coffee was being brewed. 
We sat comfortably at the dining table, our coffee cups in front of us.  I sweetened my coffee with sugar.  Barbara used Splenda.  Then we engaged in a non-stop  conversation about books, food, weather, hair styles, the wine and cheese party she’d attended the night before... and finally, on our individual New Year’s eve plans.  We laughed often. We were happy.
“Barb, I’m so glad our paths crossed.” I flashed a genuine smile as I took a small sip of my coffee, glancing over the rim of my cup at Barbara’s face. 

“Yes, my dear. Me too.” Her grin sparkled through the steam rising from my coffee cup. 
“Happy New Year, hun!”
“Happy New Year, Barb!”




Saturday, December 17, 2011

Merry Christmas, Lucy




A woman answered the phone.

“Lucy?” I guessed, as she didn’t identify herself. 

“Hi Doris.” 

Yes, it’s Lucy!  

Lucy recognized my voice on the phone, knew it was me from my accent or from my many conversations with her.  I had been the social worker assigned to her father, Mr. Brown, for a year. My residents and some of their family members almost become my extended family.  It’s a good feeling.

“Lucy, I’d like to set up a meeting and discuss the option of Hospice for your Dad. As we recently talked, his condition is worsening every day.”

“Doris, go ahead and do it.” Her voice was gentle but clearly expressed her relief.  “You  know what’s the best for him.”

“Are you sure you don’t want the meeting?”

“There is no need. I will stop by this afternoon to see Dad.”

Lucy carried herself elegantly, was always well-dressed, beautiful inside and out for a confident woman in her mid sixties. While a prideful woman, her candid words left no doubts about her good heart. 

Lucy visited her father about twice a week, unless she was traveling with her husband. Recently retired, the couple would talk about their leisure trips, not to Florida, or California, but to Germany, Paris, Spain, England, India, and even to some countries in South America. 

Lucy sometimes brought pictures of her trips to share with her father, but he had little or nothing to say.  In his nineties, his dementia had advanced to such an extent that he could articulate little verbally and showed even less ability to recognize Lucy. 

Mr. Brown had two sons, but they had been estranged for many years, and wanted nothing to do with him.  No other family members were involved in Mr. Brown’s life.  He was divorced, and the mother of his children had died long ago.  I had been told that Mr. Brown came from another nursing home years before I came to work to the facility. 

The medical records reflected a history of being in the Alzheimer's unit. “Dementia with behavioral disturbances, Psychosis, Alcoholism, Depression” and the list of diagnosis continued. Now Mr. Brown was at the end of his life, and I was glad to see he had a supportive daughter.

Lucy’s husband, Fred, always accompanied her.  He was a man who everyone would refer to as a “nice guy.” A gentleman, down-to-earth man, quiet, most of the time. But he somehow reminded me of a guardian angel—or a body guard, perhaps.  Someone “there” for Lucy, but, not much for Mr. Brown.  
“Doris!”

I heard a familiar voice, one I associated with cheerful feelings.  Turning, I viewed Lucy.  She looked  radiant, not just because she was wearing a hot pink coat, but also because her voice carried words in a tone intended to embrace the listener, as if audible hugs floating from her lips. She flashed a  smile which shone brighter than the Christmas lights that decorated the facility.

“Lucy, you are here early!”

“The hospice nurse called and told me I needed to sign some papers.” 

“Do you have any questions about Mr. Brown’s transition to hospice care?”  I wasn’t quite sure how informed Lucy was about her father’s significant medical decline. 

“I’m ready for Dad to go.”  Her voice became more firm, measured in her tone. “Maybe I should tell you some things about him.  You will understand better.”

I frowned, my confusion evident, I was sure.

“We can go to my office and talk, if you want.”

Lucy nodded.  No words passed between us. If one could ever actually see a lump in another’s throat, this was the time.  Her husband sat by the fireplace, observing us. Lucy signaled to him, to wait there.  He acknowledged, uncomfortably, and looked down. 

Lucy followed me to my office. I spied tears rolling down her cheeks as we sat. 

My heart pounded.  I’d never seen Lucy so vulnerable. 

“What’s going on, Lucy?” I reached for a Kleenex box and set it closer to her. 

“I love my Dad, don’t get me wrong, but my whole life I’ve had to deal with mixed feelings.” 

I nodded, unsure of the meaning of her statement, but remained quiet, letting Lucy continue after she regained her composure. 

“My father is an alcoholic.  I first realized his addition as a little girl.”  Her voice grew a bit stronger, revealing the anger she still harbored. “One day, he was terribly drunk.  He entered my room, and touched me—molested me. I was nine. I panicked—screaming.  My mother and brothers ran in. There was a big fight and that very night we left.  We all went to my grandparent’s house, and stayed there until my mother secured a place for us.”

Lucy paused.  Her eyes filled with tears again.  She clutched, seeming to gasp for air. 

My heart sank.  Now I was the one with a lump in the throat. 

“My mother... she never told my grandparent’s what happened.  She just said he was drinking too much and she couldn’t take it any more.  My brothers kept the secret as well.  The incident was never reported to anyone. None of us ever talked about it. Ever—until I told my husband.  He knows it happened, and that’s why he is always with me when I visit Dad.  I feel more comfortable with Fred around, even though my Dad is now reduced to nothing but still haunting me for a lifetime.”

I searched for empathetic words in my mind while Lucy vented. I could see she needed it, although I was in shock and basically tried to honor the shoulder she needed to lean upon that day.  The person to share such a terrible secret—her father’s unpunished crime.   

Lucy told me she received psychological therapy during her tender and younger years subsequent to the encounter that helped her to move on with her life. She was now a successful Relator, blessed with a happy marriage, and with two children, and several grandchildren. 

“I forgave Dad for what he did—or so I thought.  But now that he is dying, I have tangled feelings, suffocating me.  The thought of his passing will allow me to breathe again.  I feel ashamed of that thought, you know, it’s not a very Christian way to think.”

I expressed my admiration of her courage to share about her emotional pain. Lucy understood what she was feeling was human. She was aware that emotional healing is a continuous process.  

Sharing a shame she should never had to bear, Lucy sighed.  Her lungs were filled with fresh air and good spirit—the spirit of a warrior, I thought. 

She thanked me for taking the time to listening.  I was actually more grateful for her letting me see her inner beauty, and be an inspiration in my life. 

Mr. Brown passed away within a week, a week before Christmas. I wouldn’t see Lucy on Christmas eve bringing presents to her father, I realized.  Instead, Lucy would be with her loving husband, and children and grandchildren. That’s what she had planned after knowing she would no longer needed to come to the nursing home.  
This time would be a different Christmas for Lucy, I presumed.  It would be the beginning of long-waited closure—the end of a gloomy chapter in her life.  
As I walked by the nursing home fireplace on Christmas eve, I thought of Mr. Brown and Lucy.  May his soul rest in peace, I prayed. And merry Christmas, Lucy. Very merry Christmas.