P. has bright blue eyes and remarkably smooth skin that stretches across the protruding bones in her hands. Someone in the facility curls her hair every morning. She wears blouses with pretty necklines. Her body is small and indistinct, covered in blankets, propped on pillows. She reminds me of a silvery dandelion in its seed stage: wispy, beautiful, impossibly fragile.

She does not complain. Oh, I guess I’m ready to go to Heaven, she says sometimes. She closes her eyes and rubs her forehead. My entire self aches for the right thing to say in those moments, but even if I knew what that was, that is not what I am here for.

P. talks about her life. She is somewhat adrift between time, truth and fiction. The result is like a mosaic of what was and what she may have once seen or read about, and it is all as real as anything can be. She talks about being on a covered wagon and how there was a little dog who ran behind with a Bible in his mouth. She tries to remember where her brother is, and decides he is visiting the South Pole. She is certain there is a spot in the exact center of the country, right between east and west, where a waterfall runs both up and down. That was sure something to see, she says.

There are some memories that seem to hold a special place in her mind, they have anchored more firmly than others. Every visit, she tells me a funny story about her oldest brother trying to flirt with a girl on a bus. Now have I told you this before? she asks, and I shake my head, delighted. She tells it with perfect pacing and style, and a roguish laugh at the end. I could hear it all day.

P. describes a day at her sister’s house when the snow fell in great drifts and covered a tree in the front yard, and how a flock of red birds came and rested on the tree. On every bit of that tree, in amongst all that white, she says, there was a red bird. We are always silent after that story.

Her room feels tucked away from everything, like being inside the smallest matryoshka doll. Large cheerful windows look out over trees and the busy river trail, but I cannot imagine her outside of this environment, where she lies in a hospital bed or a recliner, her feet elevated, tubes resting in her nostrils. She seems caught between so many worlds.

P. is 96. Her husband died years ago. Her parents and siblings have passed on. Her adult children live far away. It is just her, the gentle attendants, the room, the clock with its steady slow tick, the rhythmic gasp of the oxygen machine.

At home, I try looking up the impersonal medical information in her chart to get a sense of how much time she has left, but the answers I really want can’t be found. Google, why do people have to die this way? Google, can you promise she won’t suffer in the end? Google, can I believe in her Heaven if I do not believe in my own?

I struggle with not having some active way of helping. I take a moment to straighten her stuffed bear and pick up some fallen flower petals, but she has enough people who bustle around and don’t have time to sit. I can feel how I want to fill the air with chatter, but she has trouble hearing, it seems like asking her to trudge uphill. I pull over a wooden chair from her tiny kitchen. I send stillness through my body. I listen.

There were eight of us when I was growing up, and we didn’t have much, but we loved music, she says. She tells me how her brother taught himself to play the violin, how her husband played piano while she sang hymns and drew chalk landscapes. There was a dog named Patches and he would sometimes stand on a fencepost, all four feet nestled together. Her mother could sew any pattern by hand, just by looking at a picture of a dress.

Well, life is sure interesting, she says. Her smile has the clear carrying note of a bell, it stays with me long after I leave. I just want to soak it up while I can.

I can see those birds, their scarlet feathers a glorious contrast against the freshly fallen snow.

Comments

33 Responses to “Hospice files: P.”

  1. Lori on May 28th, 2017 12:53 pm

    I just want to read more, more, more. You have a gift. Thank you for sharing. May P find peace when thinking of those red birds on snowy white.

  2. Tiffany on May 28th, 2017 1:39 pm

    By being there, just being present you have probably done more for her than any of the other people around. I’m sure she’s able to take comfort in your presence

  3. Renee on May 28th, 2017 1:47 pm

    Such a lovely picture in my mind’s eye

  4. Donna Brubach on May 28th, 2017 1:47 pm

    This was powerful.

  5. Michelle Ray on May 28th, 2017 2:41 pm

    Having been in your shoes several times, you have a beautiful way of saying things. Of capturing the moments where you hold your breath along with tears and don’t exhale until your promise yourself you won’t cry.

    Now, when are you going to write that book you talked about so long ago? You have such great stories to tell! We. Want. More!

  6. Michelle on May 28th, 2017 4:20 pm

    This is beautiful. You’ve reminded me of stories I listened to my grandmother and great-grandmother tell prior to their passing. You are doing some amazing work by listening to her, capturing her story, and sharing it with all of us. Thank you!

  7. J on May 28th, 2017 7:51 pm

    Your writing takes my breath away, Linda.

  8. Teei on May 28th, 2017 8:47 pm

    Bless.
    Thank you for being a loving person and being there for this lady. It’s a special thing to be present for births and deaths.

  9. Alison on May 28th, 2017 9:55 pm

    Thank you for this. For hearing her. I think that’s what most of us want in the end. You have such a gift.

  10. Barbara on May 29th, 2017 4:02 am

    You are doing exactly what you are there to do: Be present. You are a gift to her as she is to you. What a lovely, lovely thing. Too, having been with you from the beginning here, I must say this is your most beautiful writing to date, and that’s saying something.

  11. Kim on May 29th, 2017 7:15 am

    Jesus CHRIST.
    Absolutely gorgeous.

  12. Alana on May 29th, 2017 10:35 am

    I have been reading you for years, and have always loved your writing….but this….just…..wow. Incredibly well written. Thank you.

  13. Emily on May 29th, 2017 10:44 am

    “Compassionate presence.” It’s a for-real medical intervention. Thank you for offering that gift to P. at a time when she needs it the most. I work in hospice professionally, but I know that hospice volunteers make the whole concept work! Thank you!

  14. Kim on May 29th, 2017 11:04 am

    Absolutely beautiful.

  15. Pat on May 29th, 2017 11:54 am

    I think that what you are doing, just sitting and encouraging her to share & listening with true interest is exactly what P. needs. What a beautiful thing you are doing. xo

  16. Donna on May 29th, 2017 2:57 pm

    ❤️

  17. BVJ on May 30th, 2017 1:40 am

    Your gift with words is astounding. Your presence is a comfort to P, take heart in that.

  18. elizabeth_k on May 30th, 2017 7:17 am

    Thank you for writing this; thank you for being you.

  19. Hillary on May 30th, 2017 7:38 am

    My dad died earlier this year and he was in hospice for about six weeks before he died. I couldn’t be there all the time. I freelance, so there’s no such thing as paid leave. And I live just far enough away that getting there and back took a big chunk out of my day. I went as much as I could, and wore myself ragged. It meant so much that there were volunteers who came to sit with him and talk to him so he wasn’t alone all the time.

    So please know that just you being there is making a difference.

    And that image of the tree covered in snow and red birds is so lovely.

  20. D on May 30th, 2017 8:43 am

    I love your writing. I would read the hell out of a book or collection of short stories you wrote.

  21. Abby on May 31st, 2017 8:13 am

    This was achingly beautiful. Thank you for writing it and thank you for sharing time with P.

  22. Jessie on May 31st, 2017 4:23 pm

    Beautiful. You have many gifts, Linda.

  23. Kathy on May 31st, 2017 6:16 pm

    My dad was in hospice recently. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised. Everyone involved made his end of life experience as peaceful and easy as it could be for all of us.

  24. Andrea on May 31st, 2017 8:22 pm

    I’ve had several different experiences with hospice. All very different. All wonderful. Your presence, just being there, no matter how quiet, is a huge gift.

  25. valarie on June 1st, 2017 7:51 am

    Honestly, I am not sure exactly what it is about your writing that I enjoy so very much. When you write about your struggles – I feel a connection to you. When you write about your joys and your fears concerning your boys – I feel a connection. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Thank you for sharing your beautiful writing with us.

  26. Anonymous on June 1st, 2017 7:49 pm

    both sad and beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.

  27. C Brooks on June 3rd, 2017 7:13 pm

    Wonderful writing as usual, I feel as if I’ve been with you on a visit with P. Thanks for taking the time.

  28. Mar on June 8th, 2017 6:34 am

    This is stunning. Thank you for writing this.

  29. Lisa on June 12th, 2017 11:29 am

    My Mom is 96, in convalescent care with yet another broken bone, 3000 miles away. I hope there’s a you in Connecticut to be with her the way I wish I could.

  30. LD's Mom on June 20th, 2017 7:46 pm

    You have a beautiful heart.

  31. Trippy on June 29th, 2017 5:41 am

    I do not know you. I do not know P. I am at work and I am weepy. You have an amazing, amazing gift, Linda. Never stop writing.

  32. Eve on July 19th, 2017 12:57 pm

    Oh my goodness, I love your writing. Thanks for writing this.

  33. Christine on September 9th, 2017 3:53 pm

    How beautiful. Thank you for doing this, and thank you for writing it, and giving her memories new life.

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