The phone call woke me at 2am. Being the hospice nurse on-call, it was my duty to be present for any patient’s death if I was needed by the family. The daughter who called was hysterical on the phone, and even though “I’m sure she is dead…but maybe she isn’t…I think she is still in pain…please come.” I dressed quickly, grabbed my nursing bag and drove to the tiny town 28 miles away.
The odor of death met me at the entrance to the upstairs bedroom. I had been prepared and spread a thin line of mint balm under my nostrils~~ but the odor seeped through it and entered my nostrils anyway. That’s the way with death…its particles are alive and they cling to the tiny hairs in your nose to preserve some tangible element to remind you that there was once life there.
As I cracked the door open I closed my eyes and silently prayed for calm. I desperately tried to breath as shallow as possible to quell the waves of nausea that began to roll in my stomach. Smells of urine, feces and bed sores hung in the heavy, stale air. One tiny night light sent out translucent beams of light toward the small twin bed in the center of the room.
Her daughter wept behind me. “She’s gone isn’t she?” she whispered.
I didn’t answer her just yet. I moved to the bed and sat my bag down with my right hand as my left hand turned on the bedside lamp. Light broke the darkness and illuminated the tiny elderly woman’s frame lying on her back in the center of the bed. Her skin was pure white and melted into her hair line. Her mouth was open, baring gums and blackness. Her eyes were open, but unseeing….blankly staring at the far wall. The multicolored quilt that covered her looked oddly out of place in the darkly painted room.
Her daughter sat in the oversized blue chair in the far left hand corner of the tiny bedroom. She rocked back and forth while mumbling an unintelligible prayer of sorts. I took out my stethoscope and gently placed it over Rose’s heart and waited…nothing…only stillness. I checked her carotid for a pulse and placed my face next to her open mouth to feel for any breath…nothing~ again only stillness. I knew she was gone, but often times the family needs these tangible, observable assessments of life to assure them of the truth.
After the exploding grief of pain that accompanied the confirmation of death that I delivered to her daughter… I asked her if she wanted me to clean her mother up and ready her for the funeral home. She told me she wanted to help me… “She was once so proud. She hated the way she smelled and the way that our family stopped coming by. She prayed that God would deliver her from her torture for 6 months.”
As her daughter left the room to get a new nightgown and some towels, I took rose and spearmint essential oils from my nursing bag and put several drops in a basin of warm water. I lit a clean linen candle that I kept in my bag and placed it on the bed side stand. When she returned we slowly bathed her mother. We started at her face and worked our way to her feet. Several moments were spent in silence, and some were spent in the sound of her grown daughter’s tears. We placed clean lines underneath her and covered her with a clean white sheet and the multicolored quilt.
While we bathed her, I learned that this patient was a ballerina and the she taught classes until she was 70. She was married at age 18 and widowed at 30. She had a master’s in music and played classical music every day as therapy for her sadness. She never remarried. Her daughter was an only child and her best friend. She never ate meat and only drank once a year on her husband’s death anniversary. She had 2 sisters that she adored, but then resented as they stayed away. She never ate at fast food restaurants but she loved the smell of Pizza Hut. She loved flowers but once she got sick she couldn’t stomach their smell. As she grew sicker she never wanted to talk about dancing or listen to classical music. She didn’t accept chemotherapy or radiation and she lived with her cancer for 4 years. She was only in pain at the end.
I wish I had known her in life.
That couple hours of time was one of the richest experiences I had in my years of doing hospice nursing. Rose was not my patient so I had not met her before that night. Her daughter needed me and I was so glad that I answered that early morning call in April. Bathing her mother and readying her for the “last part of the journey” was such “a gift.” I was honored to help and be present for this moment in their lives. I have never seen the daughter again, but the memory surfaces during April every year…
What are your most treasured memories from your career????