This last month my husband of 47 plus years received the C-word diagnosis on top of his rapidly deteriorating pulmonary condition, and all to-do lists, book plans, and life plans have been knocked into a cocked hat. In the quiet moments, I think about how common an experience it is these days, moving toward an inevitable end, or as my husband calls it, life’s biggest adventure.
It’s amazing how swiftly priorities and schedules change with this turning point. Although not a “crisis” which implies immediacy, there’s no second guessing or back-pedaling after a final diagnosis. When doctors suggest hospice care, it’s the corollary to terminal illness, a giant step toward a life altering transition. For now, every emotion succumbs to pragmatism. The main concern is how best to get through the worst; health care may be the province of professionals, but home care is the landscape of family. During 25 years nurturing financial clients, the stress came from so much I couldn’t control. Now that I’m at home caretaking, the stress is amazingly similar. There is even less control and a totally unpredictable timeframe.
However, there is a comforting busyness when I can take charge and handle the down and dirty aspects of daily maintenance. We moms and wives have been there before and more easily slide into the odd and eclectic demands of sickness. We hold things together while our other, outside lives remain “on hold.” My lofty plans for interviews toward a book about other people’s transitions have withered under this new reality. I still take on different roles, but they’ve narrowed. I’m able to see myself as an interested bystander at the same time that I’m an active participant. My life has segued into an on-the-scene player in my husband’s end of life struggle. Call it “issues” or “illness” but we’re inching toward Death. The dreaded D word, the final…finality.
My husband says it best. “I don’t mind dying,” he admits, “I just don’t like the idea of not existing any more.” That the world may chug along without us at its center is indeed hard to grasp.
Now that things have squarely hit home, though, I realize we’re in this final scene together. After all, I cavalierly signed on for this part long ago, via public vows and a marriage contract. I more than happily agreed to abide by the rules. It’s my time to live them all. “Well, we’ve done the ‘for better or for worse part,’ I tell my mate, “I guess we’ve moved on to the ‘in sickness and in health’ phase.” Admitting where we’re at is easier to handle than the frozen fear of the unknown. “It is what it is,” agree some understanding friends. But it’s more than “what is” actually; much is also “what isn’t.”
This nitty gritty end-of-life stuff certainly isn’t like the movies! At least at our house. Neither sentimental, frantic, overly sad or brutally bad, we women of a certain age move forward—that’s our strength. Others less grounded in a mid-last century, middle class past might more easily pass the buck to paid help, nursing homes, hospitals or other admirable, professional institutions. Our hospice providers are good, caring and competent. But they’re not full time. Nor all-day. Definitely not all night. No wonder Long Term Care Insurance is the highest cost and commissioned product in the investment pantheon. It’s indeed a bummer, definitely unromantic and un-relieving to handle death at home.
I am able to expand the boundaries of my mini-life with a walk to grocery store, library, park for an hour or so. I can make exercise class very early in the morning before my spouse wakes up. It’s good to revert to a schedule of sorts, gift myself some out-of-the-house time. The kindness of near-by friends, the calls from across country relatives, our caring children, all demolish isolation and diminish aloneness.
So I amble through the park and see the early budding of our area’s decorative fruit trees—a yearly symbol of spring. The high school tennis courts are full, someone’s marking the fields for soccer…or is it already baseball? I also received notice of two recent births… please fill in all the clichés re new life, budding flora, the earth turning and a new day dawning.