Crushed, confused, anxious and speechless; she found a new pain. One in her chest, left rib cage, a deep pain in her heart that made it hard to take a breath and nauseous at the same time. Her oncologist had just said, “I believe it is now time to go and see Hospice” and her life seemed to crumble. “I am dying”, she thought for the first time with any significance. She had toyed with the prospect, but this sentence seemed to make it real, unavoidable. It seemed like the fight was over.
Nancy could not remember what was said thereafter, she could not remember the drive home. A tear plopping into her cup of tea awoke her from a daze she had been in since leaving the medical centre; she needed help. They came, family and friends all with their different forms of support, advice and anger. “I bet this is because your medical aid is finished”, “How dare they give up the fight”, “You can still beat this, just be strong” and all the awkward silences and funny looks. But in the end they all left and carried on with their lives and Nancy was left in the house with her daughter Skye and her son David.
Aged seven, David never knew his father as Skye lost him in a tragic accident when he was only one. Everyone was close but the cancer treatments had made life difficult for the three of them for the last 8 months. Nancy often thought it a huge burden on her daughter who was not only a single parent, but an executive and now nurse. The pain Nancy was in most of the time was almost inconceivable to her. In her mind she could visualize the cancer ripping her nerves apart, like ugly little nuclear plants sending a stream of pain right to her brain, her heart, her entire being, her eyes… just everywhere! She often though the pain was actually in her soul, far deeper and more intense than she thought her body could handle. It was this intense pain she always tried to hide from David and Skye as they tried to care for her.
With David at school, and Skye at work Nancy had so much time to think during the day and her mind swam in dark pools like white smoke on a quiet night. She would drift from one thought to another and they all seemed important, serious and now they were urgent. “It would be so much easier if I was just gone” she thought, she would not have to think about these things…they would have no power over her if it was over. Consumed with questions that seemed to have no answer. “Why me God?”, “What will happen to Skye and David?”, “What will my legacy be?” She thought on all levels of being Nancy, her spirituality, of her social setting, her family, her body, her work, and mostly she just ended up in tears. “Put on your big girl panties” she though and with a lot of courage she picked up the phone, took some deep breaths and called Hospice.
A few days later Sister Mary arrived at the house and as arranged, both Skye and David were there to meet her. Mary ruffled David’s hair after a high five and then gave him and Skye a big hug, whispering to each that, “everything is going to be okay.” “What do you love to do David?” Mary asked, and when he replied she suggested he go and play on his skateboard outside while they do the boring stuff. Paperwork was quickly done with Nancy and Skye to get a grasp of the condition, history and the family and support network. Pain control was discussed, other medication, alternative treatments and spirituality before David was called in to be a part of the team.
Reflecting on her veranda that night Nancy found some relief. Mary had included everybody in the discussions, either all together or with Skye in the lounge or David in the sun while he skated. Nancy now knew how her daughter and grandson were feeling, and they all seemed somehow on the same page. There seemed to be no rush, no race or anxiety towards her final day; Mary had given her assurance and comfort that this is a natural process. That billions of people before had gone through the same thing, “it is as natural as birth” were words that lingered in her mind. Mary had told her that she had a right to a special life, no matter how short. She had been told that she could prepare for a beautiful death and it didn’t matter when that would be.
Nancy’s pain became more of a reminder for her to carefully choose and focus on the things she was thinking about. Now that it was managed she could think, as pain didn’t penetrate her soul anymore; pain was no longer first in the queue for her attention. She thought deeply about God and prayed for her family and friends. She spent hours with Skye discussing her dreams of the future, and shared her many lessons learned through her colourful life. She absorbed all she could from time on the driveway or in the sun by the pool watching David in childish play. Smiling, and at times crying at the joys of youth and their blessing of life. “Life” she thought, “that is what it is all about, that is what Mary meant when she said that none of the Hospice patients are dead? I am still alive, and by God I am going to be just that until I die!”
Mary’s Hospice car usually arrived late in the afternoon and Nancy noticed that somehow David always had a high five and a head ruffle, and Skye a quick cuppa after work. From time to time a social worker would arrive to chat and David loved the play therapy sessions almost as much as Nancy loved the deep meaningful conversations. Nancy started seeking out her old friends and distant relatives on Facebook and loved to video-call them when nobody was home. Oh the memories and the stories of her youth started to flood back and she shared them all at home, grateful to have had so much fun. To have made so many mistakes, to have fallen and gotten up, to have… lived!
The medicine, the bathing, changing of diapers, nails, hair, food and the constant cleaning up just got to Skye one day. All of this as well as being a mom and an executive all day and the tension snapped her like a dry twig. A panic call to Hospice had Mary arrange a bed in the in-patient unit for Nancy and she was dropped off within the hour. The social work team counseled Skye and David and they decided to go on holiday to the mountains to relax and rejuvenate.
Hospice seemed so homely to Nancy with the quilted bedspreads, beautiful curtains, antique furniture and artwork. When she listened she could hear the happy team she had all met, the budgies chirping or the classical music down the halls. Everyone seemed to care about her, and they all had more than just a moment to listen to her stories or to chat about her life. Strangely she noticed that nobody seemed to feel “sorry” for her, but she was overwhelmed by their compassion. Although she couldn’t eat much these days, she was always asked what she felt like eating. “Hey!” laughed the well fed chef, “Every day matters here and everyone should enjoy every meal, even if we not sick.” Nancy enjoyed the volunteers trimming and painting her nails, loved the aromatherapy and was intrigued by reki. She felt content and relieved that Skye and David could forget about her care for a few weeks. Nancy found it strangely comforting that a nurse chose to read her book in a chair close to her in the small hours of the morning, and that the Hospice cat loved to curl up on her bed.
It was a well-known phenomenon that Snowy the cat had a sense about who in the unit was nearing their time. The nurses also have a well-developed awareness of the signs Mother Nature provides for near terminal cases, and so Mary was called. Skye was due back that day, and was told to hurry in to visit with David. The team convinced Nancy to spend more time on video-calls when she felt up to it and her sister was told to book flights from London as soon as possible. Everything seemed the same to Nancy, who was feeling great with all the attention, love and care. She had never felt so proud of her daughter, her grandson, her friends and her God. She felt so in tune with everything, she felt grateful, peaceful and content with absolutely everything in her life. Her only wish was to see her sister as she thought her sister would not deal well with losing her. This to Nancy was the only missing piece in her puzzle of life, but she knew that flights were expensive and she could understand it may never happen.
Nancy’s sister spent two days with her before she passed away at the Hospice. The doctor had worked hard to balance the medication to manage the pain while allowing Nancy to be lucid and as alert as possible. They held hands when she dozed off, but chatted non-stop when she was awake. They laughed between coughing sessions, shared a sherry and many special silent moments in those precious hours. The next morning Skye, David and a few special friends came in to honour Nancy’s body. They started at her feet and spoke of the miles they had walked, the fancy shoes they had worn and the sports they had allowed her to play. They moved up the body acknowledging the role each limb, scar and organ had played in her legacy. Her heart for loving so freely and so deeply; her mind for challenging, deciding and solving life’s problems. After paying tribute to her hair, the many colours and styles she once wore they prayed and moved to the lounge to have coffee while the body was moved to the funeral parlour.
Nancy’s last will and testimony ended with the following words, “If I can leave this world with one wish, it would be for all who know me to (very soon) understand the value and privilege of life. I am honoured to have been taught this in the few weeks at the end of my life from the incredible human beings at Hospice. It does not matter how long you have to live, but that you lived well. That you cherish all you have achieved, and all that you are as a being… as a beautiful soul. I had to die in order to learn this, and hopefully you all can learn from my journey. I am so grateful for the staff of Hospice for moulding my death into a beautiful stage in my life. I am so blessed that fate brought me to your care, and that you brought me to my understanding of life. For this incredible work, which did not cost me a cent I would like to thank you. I would like to bless more people with the same transformation of spirit and awakening of understanding. As my gift to you, and to humanity I hereby bequeath the balance of my estate to Hospice to use as they see best to further their mission and vision, and to change the lives of those to come. Thank you!”