Final Gifts

11 12 2011

The past two months of my life are a blur. I’ve been back and forth to Eastern Washington to help with my uncle’s hospice care several times. I took a leave of absence from work, sent Thor to stay with friends, and asked my son to fend for himself. I would return to Seattle only to attend my MBA classes, catch up on personal business, and replenish the fridge so my son wouldn’t think I had completely abandoned him. It’s been physically and emotionally grueling.

In late October, minutes before I was about to leave Seattle, once again, the mail arrived. It was a package from Amazon. I tore it open, and inside, I found a book called “Final Gifts.” There was no note to indicate who had sent it, but it was about the hospice experience and communicating with the terminally ill.

I searched for a note and found nothing. I even threw the packaging away and went back to the garbage to dig it out to search for a note again, but found nothing that would tell me who had thought to send this to me.

Since it seemed extraordinarily timely and relative, I stuffed it in my bag and packed my car. It seemed like it would be immensely helpful, and, oddly, lighter reading than my “Capital Budgeting and Investment Analysis” textbook.

Each time I would return to Eastern Washington, even if it had only been a few days, I would find my uncle worse off than he had been when I left. I don’t know why this seemed like such a shock to me; even when I was with him, I could see the day-to-day progression in his cancer. I saw it in the amount of times he asked for morphine. I saw it in how easily he became exhausted and needed to sleep, and I saw it as numerous visitors came to see him, causing him to cry when they were gone, knowing that it would be the last time he would see them.

When he first came home from the hospice facility, we had a morning regime of breakfast, medications, newspaper, hike, always in that order. Most of the time, he would shuffle around the house in his slippers, but at around 11 a.m. every morning, he would let me know he was ready to go. He would put on his old hiking boots, jacket, and hat and want to go for a hike.

As always, I let him dictate where and how far we would go. Surprisingly, with his pain under control, he had a lot more energy than he had when he was in the hospice facility. The first time we went out, I asked, “Do you want to take your walker, just in case.”

“No.”

“Ok.”

He’s a pretty proud guy, and I’m fairly certain he didn’t want the neighbors to see him pushing a walker up and down the street.

The first day, we went around the block, and he was soon exhausted. I felt relieved that we didn’t go too far, because I was concerned about him falling or having the pain break through his medications. The next day we went a little farther, and the next day, the same thing. Each day, we progressed until we were walking to where the sidewalk ended at the end of a nearby street, and then, walking along a natural trail, through the sand, behind the housing development he lives in. We would end up back in the development, a few blocks away from his house.

He hated being cooped up in the house and wanted to get out every day, so our routine soon looked like this: breakfast, medications, newspaper, hike, morphine, nap, lunch, golf channel, more medications, another nap, nightly news, dinner, more medications, and finally, bedtime.

I started to sleep with a baby monitor in my room, so I could hear him if he got up in the middle of the night.

It was painful each time I had to leave and come back to Seattle, and one day during our hike, I said, “I hate leaving. Every time I leave and come back, you’re worse,” and I started to cry. My uncle reached for my hand and he too started to cry. We walked like that in silence for several minutes. These are the moments, the conversation, the gifts that nobody will be able to take away from me from this experience.

Sometimes we would just sit in silence. Other times, he would tell me stories from when he and my aunt lived in Cameroon, South Africa, or Alaska. I guess in a way, he was completing a survey of his life. He had done a lot over the years. On one trip, he sent me home with the horns of a Central African Giant Eland, ranked 8th in the world. He had shot it on safari in 1962, and the next day, over the bucket of water that he was soaking the horns in, proposed to my aunt. I jokingly let him know that the scenario did not seem very romantic.

“I suppose you were letting her know you could provide for her, huh?”

“Yeah.”

The neighbor gave him a hard time about trying to bag two prizes in two days. (Ironically, in later years he had become opposed to the idea of safaris.)

He talked about teaching himself Swahili, so he could one day hike Kilimanjaro. He had given up the idea when my aunt got sick several years ago, and regretted that he never got to go.

By my fourth trip to visit him, he could no longer go out for our long walks.

Increasingly, he talked about hiking Badger Mountain, and said that he wanted to leave with me and go hike Tiger Mountain one more time. I could imagine him hiking up and never coming down. This is where the book, “Final Gifts,” was useful. The book talks about how, as people near death, they often talk about doing things that involve going somewhere or doing something like they did in life. Basically, my uncle knew he was too weak to hike Tiger Mountain, but he was preparing for a journey.

One day my uncle said, “Tomorrow I think we should hike Badger Mountain.”

My aunt and cousin didn’t get it, saying, “Now, you know you can’t go hiking.”

The effect on me, having read the book, was to consider that the following day perhaps he would go on his journey and not come back. Whenever he said these things I would go through a little checklist in my brain, making sure there was nothing left unsaid that I still wanted to tell him. Plus, it was an extra reminder to tell I love him.

My uncle is really the first person with a terminal illness to whom I have been extremely close. Helping him through this transition has been some of the most difficult work I have ever done, but, I have to say, in a strange way, perhaps it has also been the most rewarding. It has taught me a lot about myself and my capacity to love and care for someone. There are only a handful of other, similar milestones in my life, the births of my 3 children and my marriage.

I am back in Seattle once again. I have been back since the Sunday after Thanksgiving. My uncle had told me, “Bring the boys. I want to see them, and then that will be the last time.” “Final Gifts” explains that oftentimes people will signal the timing of their death, and I don’t expect my uncle to be with us at Christmastime. I think he knows. He told the neighbor the other day that he was counting the days. I could be wrong, the doctors didn’t even think he would make it to Halloween, but for some reason, I feel an intense urgency to finish this post before he passes.

Some things I’ve learned over the past two months:

  • Don’t dismiss the messages of the dying as “chemo-brain” or the effects of the medications. Pay attention to everything the dying person says. There are important messages and lessons there.
  • If you don’t understand, don’t dismiss. Ask open-ended questions.
  • Sometimes silence is the best gift you can give. You don’t have to have an answer for everything.
  • Touch communicates much more than words.
  • Leave nothing important unsaid.

Yesterday, fall quarter ended. I have two more quarters left in my MBA. While I’m in Seattle, I can’t visit with my uncle. He can no longer finish his sentences and therefore, has a hard time communicating over the phone. I’m grateful for the precious time I’ve spent with him over the past two months. Although difficult, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

And, one final thing I learned…

Over the past month and a half since the book arrived, I have asked all of the usual suspects, and hadn’t found the sender until last Thursday. Thank you, ElderBaud, for such a tremendous gift.

“Life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.” – Rossiter Worthington  Raymond, 1840-1918





Unfortunate Anniversaries

17 10 2011

One year ago yesterday, my STB ex moved out of our house. Last year, as soon as my ex was gone, I called my friends who immediately mobilized. Within minutes, they showed up at my house bearing food, wine, and a DVD about the female orgasm.

It has been an interesting year, but I am better for it. And I still have that healthy glow, if you know what I mean.

But October looks to be another month of unfortunate anniversaries.

Yesterday was also my aunt’s birthday, but it was not a very celebratory occasion. I am back in Eastern Washington, helping her care for my uncle who is dying of prostate cancer. He is in hospice now, and we’ve had some long, rough days.

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1991, my uncle convinced me to buy my first pair of hiking boots. He sent me over to REI with instructions on what to look for and how to test out the boots for fit and comfort. He swore by Vasque. That was what he wore, and he felt I should get the same. Thus began our treks up and down the Cascades together.

At that time, my uncle hiked every Sunday and I was welcome to hike with him whenever I wanted. We broke in my new Vasque by heading up Tiger Mountain, Mount Si, or sometimes we’d venture out as far as Granite Falls or Mount Rainier. He would walk ahead, and I would trail behind. Sometimes, we would hike for hours in silence and sometimes, we would talk none stop about our lives and share both what was currently going on and our pasts.  I would tell him about my life and about the kids, and I learned all about his life in Africa and how he met my aunt in Cameroon. He had been a mechanic, and she kept having trouble with her VW bug until he agreed to take her out on a date. (She’s persistently passive-aggressive like that.)

My uncle and I even got lost once in the snow during Easter weekend of 1992. It was like that circle made by Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger.  We were hiking along, and I thought I started to see things we had already seen, a foothold here. a rock there.  Finally, I said, “Have we been by this spot before?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Ok.”

We hiked a little farther, and suddenly came upon a rock slide we had passed only moments before. There was no mistaking it then. Like Pooh and his posse, we were hiking in circles.  We had lost the trail in the snow. By splitting up, but staying within sight of each other, somehow, we managed to find our way back to the trail. Once we were back on the trail, we quickly decided to call it quits for the day and head back home.

We never told my aunt about it. She didn’t need to know; it would just worry her.

Today, my uncle and I went for another hike. He wants to go home in the worst way. He does not want to die in the hospice house. Yesterday, the doctor told him that if he wants to go home, he needs to try to exercise and he needs to try to eat.

My uncle wanted his sweatpants, and he wanted me to go for a hike with him. Just as we have for so many years, we are hiking and talking, and he’s sharing things that he won’t tell my aunt. Our trail is a navy, indoor/outdoor carpet, and instead of weaving our way past downed branches and rocks, I provide a buffer so that he doesn’t catch the wheels of his walker on parked wheelchairs and rocking chairs. Just as we used to greet other hikers along Mount Si trail, he stops everytime he sees a nurse to make sure that they see how active he is and how well he’s doing.

He tells the nurse, “This is my niece. We used to hike together, and she’d share her life with me.”

I have to try to hold it together, because he hates it if I start to cry.

He pushes himself until his pain breaks through the medications and he has to crawl back into bed, exhausted. He has compression fractures in nine of his vertebrea and the cancer has invaded his pelvis and ribs. He won’t go quietly though. The doctor said exercise and he wants to go home. Pushing himself is the way he’s always done things.

Our hikes are the highlight of his day. Once back in bed, when nobody else is around, he grabs my hand and tells me how glad he is that I’m there. He tells me that he wishes it could all be over. Cancer is a shitty, shitty way to go. He says he wants it to be over as quickly now as possible.  There are times, during the day, when he’s sleeping when he stops breathing for a second, and I watch patiently to see if he takes another breath. For his sake, I too wish he could have his wish.

But until then, we will be hiking up and down the hallway every afternoon.








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