I got a private care giving job for a family recently. They hired me to spend the night at their place so they could get some much needed sleep. Respite care. I was to get up in the night and help their 97 year old mum if need be. Warm milk. Pillow fluff. Trip to the loo.
I liked her, and she liked me. Old friends right away. She told me I looked exactly like her sister, as we sipped tea from decorative china. She said it was my nose and showed me a picture of it in a wedding album from 1942. It was true. Spitting image.
I spent only a few nights with her at home when, unfortunately, she got sick. She was taken to the hospital. The family requested that I continue to spend the nights with her so they could go home to sleep. She liked me after all. My old friend.
Two weeks of palliative care. Lots of unknowns but each night I held her hand. We talked late into the night. I reassured her with a warm cloth on her face. Made sure she had breakthrough medication if she was in pain. Prayed for her. Sang her old gospel songs for comfort. Counted her breaths as they got short and shallow. Swing low. Sweet chariot. Rattle rattle.
Her condition worsened quickly. Delusions and hallucinations. “It is OK, I am here, the room is not swallowing us up.” I told her I was not the person to take her to the ‘waiting place’ and to hold on until the morning. I told her the earthquake was not real. I listened as she revealed things she never told a soul in her life. Her biggest regrets. Greatest fears. The loves. Her joys. Her face frozen in moments remembering them all. “Hush now. There, there. Let’s tuck you in.” Lavender sprits. Fleecy blanket.
When she would fall asleep, gripping tight, to me and to life itself, I studied her hands. They were wrinkled and warm. Delicate and strong. I imagined all the things she did with them. She held her babies and patted their bums, kneaded dough for apple pies, lovingly mended her husbands navy jacket, wrote thank-you notes for gifts, wiped tears away and here she was holding me. A stranger. A caregiver. A friend.
I looked down at our hands folded together and considered our age difference. The pressing reality of her inevitable end made me beg for the lesson I could take from this. I sat there, watching her struggle to breathe as I inhaled youthfulness and vitality with ease. Her heart weakening and slowing while mine, strong and proud. The irony. The beauty. The mysterious purpose. The sobering knowing that one day soon someone would be holding my wrinkled old hand. To trust that there will be a friend, someone to hold. To hope.
In the morning, the room filled with new cards and fresh flowers. The daughter came and leaned into her mum’s ear and whispered, everyone sends their love – sealing the message with a tear and a kiss. A witness to the process of a family letting go, I listened to the stories that brought rest to my darling friend.
“She and dad were truly, truly in love. They moved a lot but mum never complained. She made a home wherever she landed.”
“When the telephone became a household item, she would spend hours talking to family overseas. Dad would supply the tea. Some nights, I fell asleep to the sounds of her laughing with her sister in England. It was wonderful.”
“Mum taught us to be good, moral people. She was a warm and caring mother.”
“She was loved, much loved.”
As my lady remembered her fondest and most precious memories, they became the stories that filled the room on her last days. They were her joy. They were her peace. They would be carried by those who loved her.
Night night. Pillow fluff. Lavender sprits. Kiss on the cheek. Rest now, old friend.