I met Jim three days after Christmas. I worked for a company that provides caregiving to seniors and end of life care and he had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and given the prospect of weeks to months to live. Hospice care is sometimes referred to as The Eleventh Hour of life and this is where Jim was — in his eleventh hour. An adjustable hospital bed had replaced the beautiful queen bed in his master suite. His friends and family were trying to wrap their heads around the sudden shock. Nurses and aides were now a constant presence in his home, 24 hours a day. Strong, capable dad was sick and he was dying.
It was a humbling experience to care for Jim his last 30 days and it was an absolute honor to be there as part of his hospice team. My experience of Jim’s eleventh hour went something like this:
Hello, happy to meet you! We exchange greetings, check each other out. You tell me how you like your cold cereal – use the deep bowl, and one yellow sweetener packet for the Cheerios, please. I clean your kitchen and check on you often. Don’t hover please — you need your space. I give you space.
We walk slowly to the toilet. You call it The Waltz. Your legs are weak but able. You do your business. I straighten your bedding. You show me pictures of your family. You tell me Life is Good. Never forget how good it is. We laugh about things that are funny. Don’t hover, though. You need your space. I give you space.
You aren’t hungry for lunch but for dinner you want a half of a tuna sandwich and some chips. You tell me stories about your work, your life. The wins and the losses. WHAT is going ON in the world? you ask. We debate and discuss, and you tell me your thoughts. You like your space. I give you space.
We wheel to the toilet now because you can no longer walk. You ask for a ride around your house. It’s so good to see the living room for a change. You ask if the wheelchair will leave marks on the kitchen floor and when I say no, you start to spin. Around and around again! When you get ready for bed that night, you tell me that today was the best day and you feel better than you have in a long time! Life is good, you say.
You tell me your worries and fears. You ponder about the cold weather, the people in the world, the sad events in the news. I read aloud to you from the Jon Huntsman book. Turn off the news please, you would rather watch In the Heat of the Night because you “get sucked into that show and love it”. I can stay and watch it — if I want to. So, I stay.
You don’t eat breakfast until noon now. I change your diaper in your bed. The pain pills help. You call them white little devils. You sleep more and more. You don’t mention wanting your space. So, I stay.
Only liquids now. Eyes barely open. You’ve decline rapidly over the past few days. I moisten your lips and mouth. You give me a little smile and we hold hands. You don’t want me to give you space, so I’m here by your side for hours. Your room feels heavy with unseen visitors and you talk to the ceiling. You only whisper partial words now and you drift in and out of sleep.
Your family is here to say their goodbyes. Your breathing is shallow, then it’s heavy, then you cough and then breathing is shallow again in a continuous rhythm. The liquid morphine eases the pain and assists with your breathing. In a rare moment of lucid arousal, you ask me when you’re going home. I tell you that we are at your home and you look around with a confused frown and tell me it looks so different now. You tell me how glad you are that you got to know me and squeeze my hand. I can feel that it’s the last time we will speak.
For two days more you linger. I help care for your body while your spirit is almost ready to leave. We time your breaths now because there is no rhythm to them. Calm, love and peace surround you. Your daughter is with you as you take your last breath and lets me know of your passing. Goodbye, friend. Life is Good.