First visit (Agnes)
Agnes gave me directions to her apartment in Decatur; a town right outside Atlanta. I had some trouble finding her address because few of the buildings in that town seem to want to place numbers on their facades. She lives in a building that is set up to help take care of the elderly. Assisted living they call it, but in order to live there you have to be more or less independent. The building has seen better days, yet it gives the residents a safe place to live. Agnes seemed to one the younger ones there, she being only 63 years old. When I got out of the elevator on her floor, the first thing I saw was an area set aside for communal computers, four in all. An old man was seated in front of one of them; he seemed about 80 or so. I said good morning and he returned the greeting and we did a bit of small talk. Then I proceeded to Agnes’s apartment.
Her living quarters were small, but good for someone who lives alone. There was a kitchen on the right as I walked in. On the left a bathroom and across from that a bed room that was larger than the living room. When I first saw her, I was shocked for it has been at least a year since I have seen her. She looked weak and a little shaky. On the way to see her she asked for an ‘Egg McMuffin” from McDonald’s and a large iced coffee with two squirts of Hazelnut. I also brought her some extra ones and put them in the refrigerator. She has a small cat that lives with her, young, less than a year old. So we sat and talked for a bit. I brought the Eucharist and asked if she would like it now or later just before I left. Since she is very ill she is not bound by any kind of fast. She wanted it first so we prayed a bit and I gave it to her. God comes to us in the most humble intimate ways, for me the Eucharist brings that out in a profound way.
So we ate and I actually found the breakfast sandwich very good and could understand why Agnes liked them so much. She was able to only eat one, her appetite is diminishing rapidly and she has begun to lose weight. I was not worried, because the apartment looked unkempt, for she was never a good housekeeper. What concerned me was how it looked confused. Things scattered around with no order whatsoever. I asked her to show me her ‘Hospice medicines’. “They are in my bedroom” she told me. So I went in but could not find them. She had a concentrator near her bed but it was not set up which caused me some unease as well. I finally found her hospice meds in a corner by the head of her bed pushed up against the wall. There was no way she could have retrieved them herself. So we sat down and looked them over. There were meds for her eyes, some white pills in two different plastic envelopes. One was for anxiety and the other for nausea. There were also some suppositories that she could use for anxiety, which she told me she would not be able to use. There was also some ‘Morphine’ in liquid form, which she could use if needed for pain. I think the hospice nurse talked with her about the meds, but Agnes did not seem to remember. Again if she took too much it could confuse her even more and participate a fall. I showed her how much Morphine she needed to put in the dropper if it was needed. She was having some trouble breathing so I asked her if she would like to try some, since it was prescribed to relieve any breathing difficulty. She said yes and I gave it to her under her tongue. The white pills worried me because of her confusion, though it was not severe. The Ativan was the smaller pill and was for anxiety; the larger ones were for nausea. So I tried to tell her the importance of always reading the label before taking anything. As we talked I became more and more concerned and told her about my worries about her safety living there by herself. I asked her if I could call her hospice nurse and she said yes. So I made a note to myself to call the Nurse on my way home.
We talked about her going into hospice and I made the point that she needed to call her nurse if she started to have any kind of serious difficulty. Not sure she really understood what I was driving at. So I did not push it. She cried some and we talked. I told her that I would try to be there for her when she passed, though if in the interim she found someone else to please feel free to let me know. I wanted what was best for her. She was in charge and was the one to make choices in how and with whom she wanted to make this journey with her. I don’t want her to think she owes me anything at all. I did ask her if I could contact her daughter after she passed. She was open to that but was too afraid of more rejection if she tried to reach her while she was alive. So I did not push any of that. I asked her is she loved her daughter and she said yes. When I contacted her daughter I told Agnes, I would tell her that she was loved by her mother. She agreed and seemed happy about that.
It was soon time to go and I really felt bad about her still being her apartment all alone. So we gave each other a big hug, I told her that I loved her and would not abandon her no matter what. She again cried. “Agnes I said; close your eyes, and believe that my arms are the arms of Jesus holding you. That you are loved and cherished more than you know”. Then I said, also the arms of Jesus are holding me, she laughed a little at that. So I left with a heavy heart. The man was still at the computer, I think he was just lonely and lived by himself in his small apartment like Agnes. He asked me how she was doing and I said that she would most likely move into Hospice soon. He nodded his head like this has happened many times before.
I called her Nurse and left a message for her to call me back. She did soon after I left Agnes’s apartment and we had a nice talk. I told her who I was and that I was Agnes’s friend. I let her know my concerns, especially about her meds and her confusion, though not severe, I felt was putting her in danger. The nurse listened and took some notes and told me that she would call me after she saw Agnes. She did say that Agnes cancer was far advanced and that in any case she would soon be in a hospice facility in Atlanta in the Buckhead area. It is a very nice part of Atlanta and the Hospice there has a very good reputation. I was very happy about that. Rose, the head nurse here, used to work at that facility and liked it very much. Before I hung up I let the nurse know that Agnes was going to put my name on a list that I could be kept abreast of her condition; which made the nurse happy.
One of Agnes strong points, apart from her other emotional problems is that she wants the truth spoken to her. It just has to be in a way that does not make her feel judged or looked down upon. She is also changing in little ways. She told me that she had a run in with one of the residents and that she called and made amends. Something she would not have done in the past.
Before I got home, she called me and said that another resident there has brain cancer and told Agnes that she needs a second opinion, also that she needs to fight it. At first I thought she was agreeing and I encouraged her to do what she thought was best. Soon however I could see that it was the opposite that she wanted to do. After awhile I found out that her neighbor’s brain cancer unlike Agnes had not spread to other parts of her body. Agnes started with lung cancer which spread to her brain, stomach, neck and of course lymph nodes, the super highway in which cancer can spread. All I told her was that there was no right way to do this. It was up to her and her neighbor just thought she was being helpful. So try not to be angry about it if she could. She seemed to calm down and said goodbye.
We came together for a reason those many years ago. I can’t say we are friends in the usual sense of the word, but I feel connected in a deep way and also respect her for trying to overcome her past. She as two months, perhaps less now of course, but in that time I feel that some deep healing will happen. As we talk I mentioned that she may be going over her life and to not be afraid of whatever comes up, it is all good, something needed by some people before they die. Also if she starts to see ‘things’, her family members long gone, or even beings that are just light, then that is also normal, she is not going crazy and to trust the experience.
No one should have to go through this alone that is one thing I feel deeply about. Though if truth be told, I am not even sure what my motives are in doing this, or in doing any kind of care giving. I am a mixed bag. So there are ‘grey’ areas that are mixed with those that are ‘white’ and I don’t think it matters. Before God I don’t know what I am, for of all the mysteries the one about me is the greatest. I suppose the more I figure myself out, then perhaps the deeper I am able to understand others. If I see selfish motives, or ego embellishing ones, well I smile and treat them as unruly children that need to be tolerated lovingly as long as they don’t take control. All I can do is to ask God to use me then drop it.
Don’t be afraid to respond if asked to accompany a friend or family member on their last mile; it is an honor, as well as a life changing experience. Dive in even if there is fear; be honest, open, and truthful. Talk about what is most important to the one being accompanied. Drop the bull ****, the small talk, the little lies that both parties do in fact know what they are, just a self serving way to talk about anything but the truth. Those dying will not impose on others if they feel fear is present, yet it can also cause them great loneliness and feelings of isolation if there is no one they can relate to on a gut wrenching honest level. It does not matter that their can be inner division, just do it, seek to love and lift up. I guess as a Christian all I can say is leave the grace of the moment to God, and just step out in faith. Those from other faith traditions will have their own way of doing it, just do it, which is the main point. Again no should have to go it alone, we will all need to be accompanied when the times comes, or perhaps birthed is a better word. Reach out take that hand, it is all worth it. The gift of loving is not a crown, or gold filled streets. No the reward of love is to simply more love. The heart has the capacity to expand eternally, a very worthwhile journey, if one chooses to respond to the invitation.