“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!”