EDITOR’S NOTE: A dear friend who lives in Arizona and faithfully reads the magazine, told me she is sharing Susan’s columns. Under the auspices of the Alzheimer’s Association, she assists with a support group for caregivers. When I shared this news with Susan, she was overwhelmed—and grateful. She hopes her stories about her husband’s journey will help others cope. Get your tissues ready…and read on.
It was not unexpected.
For months, my husband was getting more and more frail; more vulnerable. So when the doctor gave us even worse news than we could have imagined – a malignant mass, inoperable – and apologized that he knew this wasn’t what we expected to hear, I could honestly tell him that I was not surprised.
But I was stunned. And even though I knew the day would come, and sometime soon, my grief grew beyond any bounds I’ve ever known. Or could imagine.
Eight days after I filed my column for the November issue of this magazine, Art Wolffis – a friend and colleague long before we got married – went into the hospital, then immediately into hospice care.
His family and I kept vigil around the clock, sitting, sleeping, staying at his side. It was the only thing we could do.
I’d whisper in his ear, hoping he could hear the words, not just feel my presence or his family’s circle of care. These have been long years, lonely years, as he moved back and forth between two worlds, caught by but not always defined by dementia and Parkinson’s disease. When people told me I needed to take care of myself, take time, not go every day to feed him and visit at the assisted living residence where he lived, I’d ask myself: “What if this is the last day he recognizes me, and I’m not there? What if this is the last day he speaks, and I miss it?”
And I’d go.
When I didn’t, when I took the rare day off, I’d miss him. But I also missed the staff, the women and men who care for residents who are at their most fragile and need the most care. I missed the laughter, the antics, the poignancy of the moment, the sense of always being in the “now,” not the past or future; only the immediate mattered.
I missed the friends I made, the most unexpected gift of the past two years, other women there to visit with and feed their mothers. We formed a friendship, a tight bond, checking in with each other, sometimes stealing away for a cup of coffee or late lunch. We knitted together while Art and their moms snoozed. We gave each other fashion advice. We celebrated weddings and new grandbabies. We suffered when one of us hurt.
We sat together at funerals for residents lost to death but freed from the ravages of age and disease.
We cried. We laughed louder than we had a right to. We commiserated over how much we could or couldn’t do in a day. We depended on one another. And when things got too much, one of us always stepped forward and said just the right thing.
Often it was a favorite Anne Lamott quote: “Left foot. Right foot. Breathe.”
There were others: two or three friends who visited Art often, faithful, loyal, really good people. One was a co-worker and friend who talked with the residents as if he’d come to visit them, too. We’d take turns helping if they needed to be fed, taking them to their rooms in their wheelchairs, mourning their deaths. The aides teased us that they ought to hire us.
At one point, we looked at each other – a couple of old newspaper reporters, tying clothes protectors around necks, pouring that day’s juice or water, getting an extra dose of napkins, wiping mouths – and we talked about the turn of events.
It was a privilege, we decided, to be with people at this place, this time in their lives. We didn’t know who they’d been. We didn’t know their stories. But they needed us, right then, and as it happened, we needed them.
Those are just some of the things I told Art when he was in hospice. Our final conversation was one we had often. He told me had to get to his parents’ house for supper by 6 o’clock that night.
I hope he made it.
In the early hours of October 29, he took his last breath on this Earth.
It was a blessing; it was so hard to see him struggle these last months and days, and so I prayed that he would go gently, mercifully, to his next place.
Even though I believe that it was the right prayer, the kindest wish a wife could offer, I keep bumping into his absence everywhere I go – and in everything I do.
And I try to remember that for right now, this moment is all that matters – a lesson learned in the most fragile of times.
Susan Harrison Wolffis is an award winning writer known for her engaging writing style.