Home > Life, Pets, Politics, Really?, Spirituality/Religion > Palliative Care for a Perception

Palliative Care for a Perception

sure1The stench hit me the minute I opened the door. I knew that odor well.

The big yellow Labrador Retriever walked toward me with his head down, which was unusual for him. Usually he was a wacky, jumping, slobbery maniac but I think he knew that he’d messed up.

And boy, did he ever. Often when a dog has diarrhea in the house it’s fairly well confined. Not this time. It looked like old Chopper had been trying to run away from what was coming out of his butt. Several hours and many cans of Spot Shot later, the evidence was still there on the beige carpeting but the smell was better.

Such are the perils of my job as a professional pet sitter. You never know what you’ll walk in on.

Several months after this incident alerted the owners to his returning stomach cancer, I was watching the same dog but this time the owner’s father was staying at the house. Harry (known as Butch to his friends) had also been struggling with cancer for a while and was getting closer to the end, but he had insisted that the family take their planned vacation. With great trepidation they agreed, knowing that I would be there several times a day and would be able to keep and eye on him.

One night I walked in and Harry said, “I’m really sorry, but I need some help with the bathroom. I didn’t quite make it.” I told him it was no problem, telling him about the time I’d made a deal with a co-worker at the petting farm where we worked that I would clean the outhouses every day if he would deal with the chicken house. I hated working with those nasty peckers enough to be willing to haul huge buckets of human feces up the hill and dump them in a holding tank.

Harry’s mess was nothing like Chopper’s had been but the real challenge was to help without further compromising his dignity. Harry had been a proud man, a blue collar worker from upstate New York who’d worked hard all his life. That night, with his head down he sat shivering on the couch, bundled in blankets, shrunken and shriveled.

I sat down on the floor and rubbed Chopper’s belly and asked Harry about his life. He’d sat there for weeks, unable to even go to the store for cigarettes and Pepsi, humbled by his disease, so he had been taking stock of his life. His wife had died 10 years earlier and he was looking forward to seeing her again. He spoke of his son and daughter-in-law, expressing his gratitude for their generosity and his happiness that his son had found such a wonderful wife who had given birth to two beautiful children. He was beginning to let go of the things that he’d held true that really hadn’t been important, resentments and misguided ideals that had kept him separate from people. Suddenly, those things just didn’t matter anymore.

I stayed for a little while, got him some more Pepsi and prepared the coffee maker for morning, but I didn’t plug it in — Harry’s fireman buddy had once told him that the #1 cause of house fires was appliances. I carried the teeming bag of adult diapers out as I left.

About a month later, I got a call inviting me to join in a memorial service for Harry out in the family’s back yard by the lake. When I arrived there, his son was distracting himself by throwing a giant chunk of firewood for crazy Chopper to chase. Harry had raised a kind, strong son, a real bear of a man. It was hard to believe that the tiny fellow I’d met could have been his father.

A display of pictures sat on a table and I looked for Harry. Because I hadn’t known him before he was sick, I didn’t recognize him at first. When I realized which one he was, I saw that he had been a huge, virile man like his son.

In the pictures I realized how extraordinary that last conversation had been. This was not a contrite looking man. That expression did not suffer fools easily. This was a “man’s man” in every sense of the word. But his last words with me were like a flower opening. A level of love and appreciation that I don’t think he had an easy time sharing with those closest to him flowed from his heart. I felt privileged to have borne witness.

In the aftermath of this experience, I got thinking about volunteering for Hospice, but as is my track record with carrying out such ideas, I have yet to do it. But as I remember this story I realize that in a sense, I am already a Hospice volunteer. I am working to ease the transition of a way of thinking that is in its final stages, trying to listen to people as they thrash with fear at the idea of their perceptions dying. I’m trying to be patient.

Our country is changing in such a way that as new life emerges, another has to end. We’re working through the stages of grief:

Denial — this is the way things are, this is how they’ve always been and they’ll never change…

Anger — what do you mean, things are changing? I refuse to let them change!

Bargaining — if I stand up and shake my fist, will you make sure things don’t change?

Depression — everything I thought I knew is different now. I don’t recognize anything.

Acceptance — things have changed, but they’re okay. I don’t feel any different, and now I have nothing more to fear.

In less than 250 years, our country has grown and multiplied many times over with a population that gets less recognizable to many every day. New languages, new religions, new philosophies “threaten” to change the fabric that many of our citizens believe our nation to be woven from.

But the broadcloths of our founders have over the years been replaced by any number of textiles as we take advantage of the amazing freedoms of opportunity and experimentation that America has to offer those who represent its threads. We have woven entirely new communities made up of a myriad of constituents only to discover that we’ve created amazing new garments, techni-colored dreamcoats!

Still, there are those who prefer the unwieldy broadcloth, the stiff materials that impede their movements and confine their spirits.

I had watched as Harry, nested deep inside the soft synthetic comforter on the couch, shed the rigid garments of his life and laid his soul bare before me. A spirit that had been so firmly bound for so many years was finally becoming free as he found in me a gentle willingness to listen as he let go of his burdens.

In my memories of that night I found a compassion not just for the literally dying, but a tenderness for the symbolically dying — those among us who are struggling to let go of a life that no longer serves them or others.

Old Chopper, the yellow lab, finally surrendered his willful exuberance for life soon after Harry did. Evidence of his “explosion” lingered for months afterward in the fibers of the carpet, almost as a coarse reminder of the indelible spirit in all of us that refuses to be permanently eradicated from the fabric that has made our country what it is, but it offered also a pungent reminder of the less pleasant parts of our history that we have managed to mostly scrub away.

Harry and Chopper, you’ll probably never know the impact you had in those last days of your lives, but in sharing and letting go of your greatest vulnerabilities, your spirits continue to make the world a stronger place.

  1. Babs Renkert
    October 11, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    You are so insightful, Ellen….we are blessed by your tomes!

  2. October 11, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Damn! You made my eyes start leaking. What a beautiful story and what a beautiful person you are. I feel honored to know you.

  3. Ted E. Kinson
    October 11, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    As usual, Ellen, so very well said.

  4. October 12, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Wonderful Ellen. You are kind and brave – a powerful combination. And here, you map so naturally Chopper to Harry to our nation…the layers of this essay, each a gift. Thanks for sharing…best, Darren

  5. Frank
    October 12, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Good morning sweet lady. I highly recommend hospice volunteering. It’s not necessarily filled with moments like you shared with Harry but it is a fruitful way to spend oneself. I found them to be moments of “accompaniment”. Being there, even when the client wasn’t necessarily aware that you were there. And I learned some wonderful things about the workers in such an environment. I helped prep a newly passed client for the trip to the morgue downstairs. The two nurses handled her so gently and talked to her and apologized to her for the indignities of the process. The caring did not stop when her breathing stopped. Such a blessing to be able to be a set of hands there.

  6. Larry
    October 13, 2009 at 1:14 am

    Ellen, you have an uncanny ability to reach into my psyche and touch my soul. This story was particularly touching because my father passed away this past December.

    My father was simply the toughest person I have ever known. He was a member of the 101st Airborne division, surviving the siege in the Ardennes Forest in WWII. Later in life he survived hiking off a mountain with broken ribs after a plane crash and survived being burned on 2/3rds of his body after a helicopter crash. Each hardship seemed to make him stronger. Despite the hardships of his life, he remained a robust, commanding figure who continued to do calisthenics and walk miles daily until the age of 80.

    In the last 6 months of his life, he was bedridden by kidney failure and unable to take care of himself. My mother spent every moment of every day by his side. For her sake as much as his, my brothers and sisters and I traded off nights and weekends helping to take care of Dad. Hospice was there 5 days a week and was a godsend. Together, we watched this tough, proud man suffer the indignities of having even the smallest, personal chore done for him. Despite the humiliation, Dad came to accept the care and love provided to him by his family. I believe he was gratified to see his sons and daughters there not just for him but for his wife, our mother. In the end though, he waited until a time when he was alone with his wife to let himself pass on.

    Even when a person knows they face the inevitable, they still feel the need to hold on until they can accept the change in their own terms. In my fathers case, he needed to accomplish these things 1) he had to outlive the doctors estimates (doctors had always underestimated his ability to recover: he easily beat their expectations, more than doubling their longest expectations) 2) that he could see that his wife, our mother would be in good hands, 3) that he could see it snow one more time (I still have never figured out why, but he asked about snow every day from October on and passed away on the day of the first significant snow) and 4) that he be able to go quietly, in his own bed, alone with his wife.

    I wonder what conditions each citizen holds onto; the conditions they set before they can accept the inevitable changes of life?

  7. Cheryl
    October 15, 2009 at 2:33 am

    You are a damn fine human being, Ellen Fenner.

  8. Tina
    November 18, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Beautiful story, beautiful you…And yes, I think Harry and Chopper know what they provided you and what you provided them. Peace to you always friend.

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