I want to see them too. I am so desperate to see the dead that surround us and welcome us home. My patients can see them, so why not me? As a hospice nurse, I have the privilege and desire to ask the dying a hospice-sanctioned question. A question that most other nurses ignore or skirt. “Who else is with us in the room right now?”
Only once did I get a firm, “No one!” from a stern and resolute Polish lady with a frail body and deeply wrinkled face. She was not looking forward to her looming reunion with her demented, despicable, dead husband. She never admitted there were other people in the room with us, and her face in death mimicked her face in life; she died wearing a scowl.
You must be thinking, people who die in hospice are loved and cared for and must have an abundance of loving family around them. Yeah, I suppose, but I see a different side of the end of life. My patients are generally at the end of some very full lives because my agency thrives on the Medicare population. It’s accurate to say I have no idea what happens to the gang-banger gunned down in the alley alone. Is he comforted by those that have gone before him? It’s difficult to say.
So I continue to go about my business of death and dying. On Tuesdays and Thursdays for the last year, I have visited Milly at ten o’clock a.m. I love Milly. She is tough, funny, and perfectly accepting of her impending demise. Her long, thin grey strands of hair that were smoothed back when I first met her are now unattended and forgotten. Her smile is still her greatest gift to me when she remembers to put in her dentures. She knows I don’t come to visit her with hope to save her life, just to make her end comfortable. On good days, we converse about her past and she asks questions about me. On bad days, she stares vacantly to my side or in any other direction than my eyes.
Boilerplate question to Milly, “Are we alone today?”
“No,” she smiles. “My Nana is here. She is sitting at the end of the bed.” Milly opens and closes her hand. “Nana is giving me dimes to put in the church offering. She does that every Sunday, reminding me to give even when you don’t have. Her hands are so wrinkled and warm. I love you, Nana.”
I want desperately to believe that her vision is real — that her Nana is sitting with her, comforting her — but my scientific mind tells me otherwise.
Milly’s pulse is steady, her blood pressure normal. I adjust her pillows and fill her pill boxes. She assures me that her granddaughter is coming over after school to check on her and I leave as she is settling into an open-mouth, eyes semi-opened afternoon nap.
I sigh. Do I have to wait until I’m on my deathbed to see you, Roger? I’m not sure I can wait that long, my love. My husband had a massive heart attack walking to his car after work three months before he retired. I never got to say good-bye. Neither did my four children.
Hospice is my psychotherapy. If Roger comes to visit me at the end, I’ll go willingly. I just want to hear his voice again and feel his arms wrapped around my shoulders. I love my children, but their hugs and kisses aren’t his.
Today is Thanksgiving and all my kids are home with me. I have the day off so I won’t see my beloved Milly today. I say a quick prayer for her. I put on a happy face and one of my sons carves the turkey. Dinner is set and my oldest son sits in Roger’s place. I smile, but he’s not my Roger. My daughter Angie has always had “the gift.” She knows things, can see things, and I am sometimes very jealous of her. Tonight, right after she served herself a hearty helping of my cranberry salad, her face drained of color and she began to hyperventilate.
“What’s the matter, Angie?” My nurse’s training made my mind do the quick differential diagnoses. Choking? Fainting? Low blood sugar?
“Answer the phone,” she whispered.
The phone rang and a chill ran down my spine as I rushed to get it.
There was heavy breathing on the other line. “Can you come over?” The rough voice on the line was in pain. It was Milly. I just knew.
“Milly?” The line went dead.
I dialed 9-1-1 as I pulled the car out of the driveway but clicked the phone shut when the voice asked, “What is your emergency?” Milly would not wish any part of her death to be an emergency. I left the phone in the car and rushed into Milly’s apartment. She didn’t want extraordinary measures.
Her breathing was labored. She was “actively dying” as we say in hospice. She just didn’t want to be alone. She called me. Instead of her family.
“I’m here, Milly. I’m here.” I patted the hand that was opening and closing.
“Tell me what he looked like,” she managed.
“Your husband,” she answered.
“Why? But, Milly…” Was I arguing with a dying woman’s request? “He was very handsome. Tall.”
“Did he have green eyes and wear a black hat?” she asked. She looked more alive than she had the whole year.
“Oh, he has a beautiful smile.” She was staring over my left shoulder.
I was panicking. “Milly, what are you talking about?”
“I thought that was him. I wanted to tell you, he always comes here with you.”
Milly exhaled. She was gone.
Kathee Jantzi is a busy wife, mom, and pharmacist in the process of shopping her first novel, a paranormal romance, to agents. She loves camping, cats, and country music. (Not. Try road biking, dogs, and heavy metal.)