I had been thinking about becoming a hospice volunteer for a while. It would come to me as a passing thought every now and then. I considered it for a bit and then put it aside. Little did I know just how soon and how clearly my indecision would be reconciled.
Homestead Hospice House is on the outskirts of town on what used to be a farm place. There is a windmill and a few trees, but farm fields mostly surround the house. And, it looks like a home — not a place of death. I had a tour shortly before it opened, but I’ve had no other contact with it, other than to read the obituaries of many a local who had spent their last days and hours there.
I became familiar with death in the most painful of ways. My oldest daughter, Elizabeth, died in 2003 from smoke inhalation from a fire in her duplex just a few blocks from the University of Minnesota where she had just begun her sophomore year. It truly was a “baptism by fire” and an experience I wouldn’t wish on the fiercest of enemies.
Almost ten years have passed since that fateful day, and I have come to accept that the physical presence of my beautiful daughter is gone forever. Her spirit, however, continues to burn bold and bright in my life, giving me the needed comfort and peace I so desperately sought in those early days, weeks and months.
My 82-year-old mother-in-law, Betty, had several health problems, but she managed them completely on her own, and she lived in a beautiful apartment just a few blocks from our home. She didn’t leave home much, but she was fiercely independent and had a love for family that could not be rivaled.
On April 2, Betty was busy in her kitchen when she made a sudden turn, lost her balance, and fell to the floor. Luckily, she had a lifeline around her neck. She pushed it and it wasn’t long before the authorities were there to help get her to the hospital.
Our local hospital determined that her hip had been badly broken, and it would be best to transfer her to Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic, just a short 30 miles away.
It was so nice to know that she was receiving the best care the medical world could offer. She underwent surgery to repair her shattered hip. She came through with flying colors and we all breathed a sigh of relief and began to focus on what we thought would come next — a rehabilitation center to get her back on her feet again and a return to her home.
It became a rocky road, however. Betty’s ongoing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as congestive heart failure, was wreaking havoc with her hip rehabilitation. She was well enough to move to the rehab center, but after a few days she suffered intense breathing issues and ended up back in the hospital. This cycle went on for an entire month.
Finally, as her family, we had to accept that, despite the fact that her hip was healing nicely, her breathing issues were not. In fact, they were chronic, and they would not improve. We were told they would only get worse.
Betty was completely exhausted and we could all see that she couldn’t fight much longer.
Our thought pattern completely changed, and we knew that the best thing for Betty was a move to hospice to be pain free and comfortable. At that point, all we wanted was rest and peace for Betty, the matriarch of our family — a woman who was widowed at the young age of 50 after the sudden, unexpected death of my father-in-law Richard in 1979 from a heart attack.
I wasn’t that close to my mother-in-law, even though I had been a part of her family for over 30 years. Yet, that day, something compelled me to focus solely on her, and I found myself continually standing at her right shoulder, patting her head, bringing cool cloths to keep her comfortable, and feeding her an occasional bite of ice cream.
The atmosphere at the hospice house was home-like and welcoming. The nurses and staff were there not only for Betty’s needs, but for ours as well. Even though we would only be with them for a short 12 hours, they very quickly felt like family.
I remember toying with the thought that, at some point, I would whisper in Betty’s ear to please give Liz a hug for me when she saw her.
With Betty resting comfortably and at the urging of the nurses, everyone except one daughter went home for the night. You need your sleep, the nurses told us, and we agreed — but not until we decided that one of us would stay with Betty at all times.
Just a few short hours after returning home, our phone rang with the news that Betty was gone. She had slipped away during the early morning hours with her daughter asleep by her side.
After taking a few deep breaths and letting the news sink in, I realized that I no longer had the opportunity to ask Betty to hug Liz. As soon as I had that thought, however, I was immediately immersed with an intense sense of love and peace and the knowing that my mother-in-law was now with my daughter and she was indeed giving her that hug that I had only thought about.
A few seconds later, that thought was gone. But, it was immediately replaced with a complete and utter sense of gratitude that I knew was my mother-in-law’s way of thanking me for helping her in her final hours.
My brother-in-law related a few days later that although he had been on vacation in Georgia when he got the news, his intense sadness was quickly replaced by an extreme sense of peace — a peace given to him by his mother that there was no need to be sad. She was in a better place, she was no longer suffering, and she was reuniting with those she loved.
It’s been a few weeks now and these experiences have had a chance to sink in. My answer about becoming a hospice volunteer clearly had been answered, and I have begun the process to make that happen. Someday soon, I hope to provide the same peace and love that we received to other families who will move their loved one to hospice, just as we did.
I consider it a gift — a gift given to me by God and by Betty. I have been blessed, and now, I can be a blessing to others.