Part 2: Hal’s Journey to Death
By the time Hal entered the care facility, he hadn’t eaten for a couple of days, but I’m pretty sure he felt better than he had for a long time. His speech had improved drastically, and he had almost completely stopped coughing – both inestimable blessings. His attitude was remarkable, his mind relatively clear, and everyone saw surprising wit that was delightful, if disconcerting. The first morning when I arrived for a visit, Hal was eager to tell me what he called a great irony. “The first thing you see when you walk in the door of this place is the dining room, and it’s the biggest room in the place, but most of the people here don’t eat.” He chuckled, “Isn’t that something?”
The in-house salon was open for business, and Hal wanted a haircut. He chatted away with the stylist and when she asked if he wanted to make another appointment, he told her, “No. This is my last one.” I guess she assumed that he would be going home, because she wished him luck. He sent me a knowing smile.
When I met with the hospice social worker, she wanted to know the plan for after Hal’s death. I told her that he had long wanted to donate his body to science and that I had made arrangements with Wayne State University. She seemed unsatisfied and kept questioning me. Was I sure that was what he wanted? Why Wayne State instead of the University of Michigan or Michigan State University? She didn’t seem to like it when I told her that we chose Wayne State because it was free, and Hal loved free. I finally suggested she speak to him. Hal assured her that donating his body to science was something he had always wanted to do, and he was gratified that I had been able to work it out. She asked him what benefits he could see in donating his body. He thought for a moment, then replied, “I don’t really know, but that has to be more worthwhile than sticking it in the dirt or burning it up.” A bit shocked, she continued and asked him if he preferred UM or MSU over Wayne State. He was amused. “You know,” he told her. “It isn’t a football game!”
Hal had some company during his first week in the nursing home. Jeff and Jerry were regular visitors, granddaughter Lizzie arrived from Texas, and my kids came to say goodbye to “Uncle Pete.” I remember when my kids visited, Hal hosted them in the front parlor. They chatted for a couple of hours and eventually Geoffrey said, “Uncle Pete, we have to leave, soon.” Hal quipped, “Yeah, me too.”
Lizzie was Hal’s only grandchild. She was precious to him because of her sweet spirit, and because Lizzie’s mother, Hal’s only daughter, had died suddenly when Lizzie was just a little girl. It had always amazed me that grandpa and granddaughter were so close, because in all of Lizzie’s 20 years, they had seen each other only once each year. Lizzie had planned a surprise visit to her Grandpa Pete on her birthday, but moved the trip up a couple of weeks when apprised of his situation. Hal and Lizzie adored one another, and it was fitting that they were together during many of his last days. They spent hours and hours together that week, reminiscing, and perusing diaries and photo albums. Lizzie tenderly cared for Hal emotionally, as well as medically. She did for him things I couldn’t bring myself to do, and she stayed all day, so I could “get organized” at home. She entertained him, and tended him with great love and gentleness and devotion. On the night Lizzie said her final goodbye, I stayed away until she called for me to fetch her. I held her across the car console while she poured out her sorrow. I felt so sorry for her, because she was losing her last real link to her mother, as well as her Grandpa Pete.
By the time Hal entered his second and final week at the care facility, I started to get protective. I made a “no visitors” policy, because I noticed that whenever somebody was around, he wore himself out with his need to entertain. The visitors that second week were mostly hospice personnel: the nurse, the nursing aide, the social worker, etc. One of the few complaints from Hal came when the hospice aide gave him a bath. He was a bit frustrated, because he couldn’t seem to make her understand that he wanted hotter water. He never once complained about hunger or thirst. In fact, a new caregiver put a glass of water in front of him, by mistake, and he told her that he wasn’t allowed to have it. One morning when I arrived, I was met at the front desk by several alarmed caregivers. Hal had put himself into a wheelchair and wheeled himself down the hall to physical therapy, where he had asked to use the exercise bike. This seemed so bizarre to the caregivers that they were even questioning the medical plan. I asked if they had let him ride the bike and they looked at me like I was crazy. “He could fall!” they cried. I couldn’t help but wonder, “What does that matter, now?” I asked Hal about his rogue run in the wheelchair. He was dismissive. “I was bored. I just wanted something to do.” Well, buddy,” I told him. “You totally freaked out the staff.”
One of my most difficult tasks during the last two weeks of Hal’s life, was what to do about his only son. I spoke on the phone to Hal’s son just twice during all the years Hal lived with us. The first time was before Hal had even moved in. He told me he couldn’t fathom that Jeff and I would move Hal into our home. “What about your privacy?!” I responded that it was a big house and we didn’t do it on the kitchen table, much anymore (eye-roll). The other time I spoke with him was years later when I called to say that Hal had a setback with his new hip. Never once, in all the years Hal was with us, did his son contact me to ask how his dad was doing.
During those years, Hal’s son visited three times. All three were tremendously disheartening. The first time was for Hal’s 90th birthday celebration. We had a big party for him and many people came to wish him well, even relatives from New York and friends from West Virginia. Hal’s son was flying in for a week, and naturally, he was staying with us. He arrived halfway through the party. Hal knew that he had been due to arrive the day before the party, and had been watching for him, but there was no way to make contact. A couple of hours after the party ended, Hal’s son left to visit some friends and that began the week’s routine: he’d stop by around 5:00 for a beer with his dad, shower and change, eat dinner, leave. I guess visiting his dad for an hour each day was the price he had to pay for free food and lodging (and alcohol) while he visited his friends.
The second time he visited, someone dropped him off at our house. Father and son enjoyed a beer together on the porch. Hal showed off his packages of new socks and underwear, which his son admired, saying, “Hey Dad, you don’t need all these,” and then promptly helped himself to four pairs of socks and four pairs of underwear. He spent a few hours with his dad that afternoon, and after dinner asked if he could borrow my car to visit some friends. The next time we saw him, three days had passed. No contact (no cell phone). No car. The third night, we locked the house up tight and I determined to report my car stolen the next morning. But when Jeff left for work, my car was in the driveway, Hal’s son asleep at the wheel. He offered no explanation or apology. I took back the underwear.
The last time Hal saw his son, more than two years before Hal’s death, was during another week-long visit to Michigan. According to his itinerary, he was in Michigan for three days before he visited his dad. Naturally, he wasn’t invited to stay with us (fool me once…), and on the only day he visited, I was polite, but made myself scarce. Father and son played Scrabble and went through photo albums. They perused the gardens and talked and laughed and reminisced. They went out for lunch. When I fixed Hal’s dinner that evening, I asked how it had gone. He told me how happy he was to see his son and what a great visit they had. He said he felt sorry for his poor son, though, who was just coming down with a terrible cold and was feeling really “rough.” That stopped me in my tracks: I was livid. What kind of idiot spends the day breathing all over a 91-year-old man when coming down with a terrible cold?! How could a 53-year-old man not have more sense?! Sure enough, two weeks later Hal was in the hospital with pneumonia.
Each Fall, it had been Hal’s habit to visit his son in Washington. By the time he was in his late eighties, his age made the trip unwise. He was getting a bit confused every now and then, and could no longer figure out a reasonable solution to even the smallest problem. I disapproved of the week-long diet of Lean Cuisine he was served there, and I worried about a potential medical issue like a stroke or a broken hip. What if he got stranded in an airport? What if I couldn’t get him home so I could care for him? I told him that he had visited his son for years, and that now it was time for his son to visit him. He agreed, but sadly admitted that he didn’t think it would happen. Hal was right, and to say that I held his son in contempt, is an understatement.
When Hal first entered the nursing home, I didn’t call his son. I was overwhelmed already, and I worried he’d make trouble. The two of them had a routine call on the third Wednesday of each month, so I figured if Hal didn’t make the call, I would get a text checking up on him. The third Wednesday came and went before Hal had even entered the nursing home. After Lizzie arrived, I was reticent for Hal’s son to show up and interfere with their time together. Lizzie and I discussed, at length, whether to call her uncle. We were both disgusted with him for his neglect of his father. We were afraid he wouldn’t have Hal’s best interests at heart. Neither of us trusted him. We decided to leave Hal’s phone accessible and check often for messages. If his son called or texted any of our phones, I would return the call and bring him up to date. Of course, if Hal asked for him, we would summon him, immediately. Hal never once mentioned his son during the last two weeks of his life, and no message ever came. By the time Lizzie left, I believed that Hal needed peace and solitude to let go. Right or wrong, I was single-minded in my purpose to do what I believed was best for Hal, everyone else be damned. Once Hal was unconscious, a visit would have benefitted only his son, and I wasn’t feeling very charitable about anybody but Hal. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t behave myself if his son did show up. I left it alone.
After Lizzie left, things started to get serious. Hal was much weaker and napped quite a bit. He spent a lot of time giving me lists of certain possessions for certain people, but most of it he had already disseminated. I stayed with him most of the time then, going home only to sleep.
One evening, as I prepared to leave for the night, Hal told me that he wanted me to do something for him. He wanted me to stop at “that big slab near the front door where people hang around in wheelchairs.” Ah – the reception desk. He said, “I want you to stop at the front desk and tell them that you have had it. Tell them you are all through. Tell them you have done your part and I’m their responsibility, now. Tell them you wash your hands of it. They can call you after I die.”
I was incredulous. “Hal. I’m not going to do that.”
Hal was testy. “But, I want you to.”
I was firm. “Well, I’ll do almost anything, but I’m not doing that.”
Hal tried to guilt me. “Even though I want you to?”
I was adamant. “Yep. Not doing it.”
Hal was whiney. “Why not?”
I was firm. “We need to see this through, together.”
Hal was weepy. “Oh, good.”
From time to time over the years, people have made Jeff and me out to be saints for taking Hal into our home. We were not saints, and it has always embarrassed me, because it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I have always been very up front about the fact that I am no good with old people. I simply don’t have the disposition for the elderly. It was always kind of a private joke between my sister and me. I was always all about the babies. Before I was old enough to babysit, I was a mother’s helper for neighboring toddlers. When other teens were at the high school football games on Friday nights, I was babysitting for a teacher’s family. In college, I earned spending money babysitting professors’ kids, and later I was director of a daycare center, then a kindergarten teacher. My sister, on the other hand, was never comfortable with kids. She had one child, undeniably precious to her, but the truth is Kerry loved old people. She visited nursing homes and volunteered to serve on boards and committees serving the elderly. She was happiest visiting with her husband’s grandmother and later his mother. We always laughed about how life turns out: she got the grandchildren and I got the old man. Jeff and I were not saints. For more than half of his time with us, Hal pretty much took care of himself and had his own life. He sang in the church choir and played in an early music group at the university. He helped in the garden, cooked his own breakfast, emptied the dishwasher, and cared for the dogs and rabbits when I was traveling on business. He paid his own way, and sometimes he paid our way. We were not saints. The reason we invited Hal to live with us is that we were it. There was nobody close to him who even noticed that he was in need, and that he should not live alone, anymore. That’s it. That’s all. I remember Jeff’s mother was horrified when we told her that we had invited our elderly friend to live in our home. She shrieked, “Nancy, do you have any idea what you are getting yourself into???” My reply was simple and honest. “Of course not.” I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed up to be Hal’s power of attorney, either, but here I was stumbling and bumbling my way through it. Many times, during those two weeks, I felt equal parts of horror and amazement, but if Hal could take this journey with such grace, I sure could support him.
A couple of days before Hal died, he asked me, “Is this it?” When I asked what he meant by that, he wondered if he was just going to lie there in that bed for months and months, no use to anybody, wasting my time, bored to death. (It had never occurred to me that dying could be boring!) I told him that he was down to days, not months, and he said he was glad. He asked me how it would all come down. How would he die? I told him that I didn’t really know, but I figured he’d just take a nap at some point, and not wake up. He brightened. “Okay!” he said. “I’m going to take a nap now and not wake up. This is it. Good-bye.” I watched, bemused, as he folded his hands over his chest, made himself comfortable, and closed his eyes. I mean, I really didn’t think it could happen that way, but I had never imagined any of the circumstances of the recent past, so what did I know? In about thirty seconds, one eye popped open and Hal peered at me. He said, “I have always loved you, even when you yelled at me.” I burst out laughing. “I have always loved you, Hal, even when I yelled at you.” He smiled and tried again. Again, one eye opened. He fidgeted. I assured him that he would die in God’s time and that he should not try to hasten it. He told me that when he had awakened in the morning, he had felt wonderful: no pain, no cough, no sticky mouth, and he thought that maybe he was in Heaven. “I hated to open my eyes to check,” he said. Then, he settled down for just a regular nap.