|My mother Evelyn and I in 2007|
Today marks nine years since my mother died of Alzheimer's Disease.
This year the day falls on Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus returns to Jerusalem and the confrontations begin that will lead to his death.
This year my friend Kathleen is dying from cancer that began in her uterus and had metastasized to her lungs when discovered in June 2015.
I spent eight hours with her yesterday, from 11 am to 7 pm. She's been in and out of the hospital since early February. Her last hospitalization was toward the end of March, followed by a week in skilled nursing.
On March 30 she returned to an assisted living facility, Claremont Manor, and finally agreed to go on hospice. Yesterday was her ninth day of hospice, and it's clear she only has a few days left to live.
Yesterday was also her birthday. She turned 77.
How do you wish someone happy birthday as she dies? It's difficult, but some 12-15 friends stopped by. She was able to talk with them and enjoy their company briefly, but each visit was also tiring.
I just sat quietly in a chair at her bedside, leaving the room when she had visitors, getting things for her when she asked, listening when she spoke.
She monitored the oxygenation of her blood with a fingertip pulse oximeter. Her oxygenation stayed around 90% except when she coughed and had to remove the oxygen tube from her nose. When the pressure was set at 5, she felt a cold wind blowing past her ears. Her caregiver would not turn the level down without permission from a nurse or doctor, so Kathleen asked me to turn it down to 3, sneakily, and I did. Later her friend Margaret got the permission from one of her doctors.
We also figured out that where the tube splits into two, one for each nostril, it's important that the ends be pointing up, not down into the bottom of her nose.
Kathleen herself is a cardiologist. Her heart beat was running about 112 beats per minute, according to the oximeter. I expressed concern about that, but she waved it away, only following the oxygenation reports.
I realized that her heart was pumping so hard, trying to get oxygen and send it around through her blood. It was the heart rate of an athlete exercising, running fast. I knew the heart couldn't keep that up for day after day.
Kathleen had drunk a cup of tomato soup from Trader Joe's that morning. She sipped water occasionally throughout the day. When I suggested water, she was grateful, telling me that she forgets to drink.
"Remind me," she said. I did. She drank over half a cup of water during the time I was there, but I knew it wasn't enough. She can't eat solid food or even pureed food. It's difficult for her to swallow. I didn't ask her why lung cancer would take away her ability to swallow. She's also given up milk shakes and Ensure because they have milk in them, which causes congestion in her throat and lungs.
I realized that she's essentially fasting. A body can't keep functioning without food for long, not when you have fourth-stage cancer and are barely drinking any liquid.
When I was with her two weeks earlier, she said, "I'm on the way out."
"I'm so sorry," I said.
"It is what it is," she replied. She says that at least once a day.
Yesterday when she said it, I replied, "But it's not good."
"It's interesting," she said, ever the doctor with a curious mind.
After some other guests had gone, she said, "Don't leave."
A doctor friend sent a birthday gift: fancy ocean-scented lotion and hand soap. I opened it for her and showed them to her. I helped her to text a thank you to the doctor. Her fingers were barely warm enough to send a message when she tapped a letter. Even knowing how to get names and phone numbers and change screens was becoming hard for her.
"Would you like lotion on your hands?" I asked.
I smoothed it on her long fingers and palm, then on the length of her arm. I noticed her light brown skin had turned a bit jaundiced. She only had one functioning kidney, and it was maybe shutting down.
"My skin is so dry," she said.
Later I realized we had enacted the scene where Mary in the Gospel of John, chapter 12, anoints Jesus's feet with costly nard. "That's for the day of my burial," Jesus said, knowing that he was likely to be arrested and executed.
Light in the room was dimming at sunset.
"The day is so long," Kathleen said. "And the nights are longer."
"That sounds like what Woody Allen said," I commented. "'Eternity is so long, especially toward the end.'" But I immediately wished I hadn't said it. She was thoughtful, looking eternity in the face.
The whole day reminded me of my mother's death: her not being able to swallow or even drink toward the end, me postponing hospice until she had less than two weeks left-- but we never know how close to the end we are.
|Kathleen (right) with Ivone Gebara|
I was also thinking of Pat Reif, who died on Palm Sunday of 2002. I had spent time with her just before she left this earth, too early, with pancreatic cancer. She was a nun, scholar, anti-war activist, feminist, with doctoral degrees in both philosophy and theology.
Like Kathleen, she had done much good in her life. Both she and now Kathleen would die during Holy Week.
At 7 pm I said goodbye to Kathleen. "I'll come back Thursday," I said, thinking she might not make it to Saturday. Maundy Thursday or Good Friday--fitting times for a near-saint to leave.
"Thank you for coming," she said.