Esther Freeman: July 19, 1915 – May 21, 2015

Her passing was peaceful.

I was out-of-town for a week and got back in time for the QO spring BBQ picnic last Thursday, May 14. The food was good, but I was surprised how much difficulty she was having. I’d put meat on her fork, but she couldn’t get it to her mouth. Then she would chew and chew and chew, as if she didn’t know what to do with it–spit it out or swallow. That was so much trouble that I tried taking small slices of ham and cheese out of a biscuit, rolling them up, and letting her eating it that way with her fingers. Taking tiny bites, she took ten minutes to finish probably a tablespoon of food. Same with a chocolate chip cookie. She couldn’t seem to find her mouth.

She didn’t say anything, and struggled to follow my prompting. I didn’t think to tell her to swallow. She did drink a lot of iced tea through a straw, and wanted to help hold the glass.

I asked her several times if she knew who I was and other simple questions that could be answered with one word.  She was silent.

They had a band playing outside, so I wheeled her out on the patio and we sat and listened. It was a lovely evening, and I noticed her tapping her foot in time to the music. Really in time to the music!

She complained that her belly hurt, and when I rubbed the spot she indicated, her abdomen felt hard as a rock. I asked the nurse if she had been constipated, but that wasn’t the problem. I have suspected for some time that she had breast cancer and thought it may well have metastasized. At her age, she was not a candidate for surgery.

I’d been there almost two hours, so when the band took a break I told her it was over and time for bed. Wheeled her inside, kissed her forehead and said, as usual, “I’ll see you in a few days.”

“Do you have to go so soon?” she whispered.

It was the last thing she said to me.

The day before yesterday, Tuesday May 19, I got a call at 8 a.m. She complained at breakfast that she didn’t feel well and didn’t want anything to eat. The nurse tried to give her a spoonful of milk, but it dribbled out of her mouth, so she thought it best to stop and avoid asphyxiation.

They put her down for a nap and she quickly became unresponsive. Over the next two days her breathing became more and more shallow and her blood oxygen level, even with the oxygen concentrator going, kept dropping. Her temperature would spike to 102, then drop to slightly below normal. However, this lady who was diagnosed with congestive heart failure 20 years or so ago maintained an “acceptable” blood pressure until almost the very end.

Tuesday night they moved her to their “dying room.” I spent the night with her on a cot. Yes, they came in every two hours to tend to her and I got no sleep, but I did see how tenderly she was being cared for. They kept her dry, gave her under-the-tongue Tylenol to reduce her fever and small amounts of a morphine derivative when she exhibited restlessness.

Yesterday morning they even gave her a bed bath.

In the afternoon I arranged a brief, impromptu “Last Rites” service with the priest from our Episcopal church, my friend Helen, who has sung with me a couple of times at her birthday celebrations, and our old friend, Al, who has visited her faithfully over the years. I also invited any of the staff what would like to come. Six of them showed up.

We started with Helen and me singing “Daisy, Daisy,” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” the two songs she had regaled the staff with so many times. Then we all sang “Amazing Grace.”

Al read some beautiful Celtic “circle prayers” that were very inclusive. Helen and I read a psalm responsively. Then Beth (our rector) read the prayers for the dying and anointed her with chrism.

We all participated in the Eucharist, said the Lord’s Prayer, and I bent over and sang her a lullaby. We were all close to tears. It was a beautiful send off.

I sat with her until nearly dark, then drove home to get some sleep. Workers were coming at 9 a.m. and I had to be here to get them started.

I called at 9:20 a.m. to see how she was. The nurse said she thought the end was very near. I left immediately and got there in half an hour.

She died at 9:26 a.m. this morning.

I sat with her until noon. It has been my limited experience that though the body may be dead, the person “hovers” for a while. I definitely felt her presence in the room.

After about an hour I felt a strange warmth–hard to explain, just a pleasant, hugging sensation. It may sound strange, but I knew at that moment her mother had come for her. I never knew my grandmother–she died before I was born. I’ve seldom even thought of her.  But I could not be more certain that at that moment, Ruth had come to take Esther home. I found myself smiling, mentally waving good-bye, knowing that my mother was being carried off by the one person she most longed for.

My mother was a woman of great faith. I know where she was being taken.

Rest in peace, dear one. I will miss you terribly.

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May 1, 2015–circuits unplugging

Last week when I visited she at least knew my name. She didn’t have anything to say, so I just wheeled her around outside and sang some of her old favorite songs. She joined in for a line or two on “Bicycle Built for Two,” but that was about it.

As I was wheeling her back inside, she said “I wonder what your dad is doing right now.”

I was a little surprised, because she has never talked about my father, only her mother and stepfather. But there was no doubt she was referring to the man she married.

I said, “I don’t know. What do you think he’s doing?”

“Probably taking a nap.”

This week she did not know me.

“Do you know who I am?”

“Phyllis?”

“No, I’m Tina. Do you know who Tina is?”

“Well, I’ve heard the name…”

She ate two pieces of candy, agreed that yes, it was nice and warm in the sunshine, and that was about it. She had forgotten our ritual good-bye kiss on the cheek.

I’m told she is becoming a bit obstreperous with the staff, refusing to take her pills, refusing to wear her backless shoes, then complaining her feet are cold.

The shut down continues.

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April 14, 2015–except for “chocolate”

I went to a care planning meeting this morning at QO.  It was raining, so I didn’t take the dogs.  She had a haircut appointment right after the meeting and dealing with them, the doggy pram, all the coming and going, and the rain would have been too much.

Mostly, I listened.  The four staff told me how she is less and less communicative.  She no longer sings.  She has occasional animated conversations with unseen people, providing all the voices.  The social worker had his monthly evaluation/conversation with her.  He said in the past, he’d ask her something and there would be a pause before she’d answer.  This time, the pauses trailed off into nothingness.  She’d forgotten the question, or didn’t have the energy or inclination to respond.

I told them about what I learned two weeks ago (last post), plus some other family information.  They were as shocked as I, and said it explained a lot of her behaviors.

It was a good meeting.

Afterwards I found her sitting by the nurses’ station.  She didn’t seem to recognize me.  She didn’t want her hair cut.  By my request, it was freshly washed, and I ran my fingers through it, telling her it was so long I was going to be able to braid it soon.  It’s not, and normally that would have gotten a rise out of her, but this time the only thing it seemed to do was calm her down enough for me to get her to the little beauty shop.

She said nothing the whole time.

I wheeled her out on the porch and showed her the little ceramic Easter basket of candy I had prepared for her last week.  I had to fold her hands around it.  I told her to take a piece and tell me what kind of candy it was.

“Chocolate.”  Her favorite.  Other than “I don’t want to get my hair cut,” it was the only thing she said the whole time I was there.

The next one was one of those puffy mints.  The last one (it was close to lunch time) was one of those large gumball types that explode with flavor.  This one was orange.  She ate them both, but did not respond to my encouraging her to tell me what flavor they were.

She didn’t move when I took the basket out of her hands.  The rain had stopped and it was warm, so I wheeled her around the grounds.  She did not react to anything I said.

Last year someone had found three abandoned kittens and brought them to the nursing home.  Now large, healthy, friendly outdoor cats, they love to jump in any available lap.  Without the dogs there, Mother was a prime candidate.  Her hands knew how to pet, but her face was expressionless.  I decided not to worry about slightly muddy footprints on her shirt.

I took her inside, told her I had to leave and would see her in a few days.  “Give me a kiss,” I said as usual.  She lifted her face, I bent down for her kiss, and kissed her on the forehead.

At least she remembered that little ritual.

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March 29, 2015–disturbing revelations

I wasn’t sure what the situation would be today.  Last night about 11:30 p.m. I got a call from the head nurse on duty.  She had been moaning and whimpering. They discovered that her blood/oxygen level was 84–very very dangerous.  They hooked her up to an oxygen concentrator and she responded well, so they felt she was going to be okay.

“She’s getting more and more frail,” said the nurse.

She was awake but not terribly alert when I wheeled her down the hall to her room, dogs happily riding in her lap.  “That’s fun,” she said, when I went around a corner.  So I did a couple of mild “wheelies” for her and she giggled.

She didn’t seem to be able to make conversation, so I told her again about my trip to CA, about Jameson the cat’s apparent allergies, and minutae of the last week. Then I sang to her for about ten minutes, but she remained quiet.

After a while she said, “I’m always getting picked on.”

“Who’s picking on you, Mother?”

“You are. It hurts.”

“Wait a minute. Do you know who I am?”

“Phyllis.”

“No, I’m Tina, your daughter. What did Phyllis do to you?”

She couldn’t remember.

“Are you afraid of Phyllis?”

“Sometimes.”

“Does anyone else pick on you?”

“Bob.” Bob was the youngest of her three step-siblings/first cousins, about four years older than she. I knew she never liked him but didn’t knew why.

“What did Bob do to you?”

“He tickled me. He pinched me.”

“Where did he hurt you?”

“All over my whole body.” All of a sudden I thought I understood.

“Did Bob take your clothes off?”

“Yes, he said he wanted to put my pajamas on me. I screamed and screamed.”

“Did you tell your mother?”

“Oh, she was so busy she didn’t have time to deal with anything more.” Tears welled up in her blind eyes and her nose got red.

What a secret to have kept her entire life. Her step brother abused her and she didn’t have a protector. Who knows what her step sister, nine years older, had to do with it.

I stood behind her and rubbed her shoulders. “Phyllis and Bob will never hurt you again. I promise.” I sang the chorus of “Bicycle Built for Two” several times, and at last she sang along

Relaxed, she focused on William. “He keeps licking my hand and it’s all wet,” she said.

William is good like that.

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March 10, 2015–lights on, nobody home

The last two times I’ve visited, she has not “been there” mentally.  Have you ever seen the elderly–mostly those with dentures or no teeth–“gumming?”  I saw her do that today, and there is nothing wrong with her teeth.  It’s a facial gesture that is new to me, as if her body wants to talk but her mind doesn’t quite get the connection.

The dogs jumped into her lap. After checking that neither her fingernails nor toe nails needed clipping, I wheeled the lot of them outside.  It was about 75 degrees, overcast, light breeze, threat of rain.  She was aware of the breeze and wanted a hat.  I explained that just because she felt wind on her ears didn’t mean she was cold.

“Oh.  I guess that’s right.”

She didn’t feel much like talking, so I wheeled them all around the property several times.  I sang songs.  She happily chimed in:  Oh! Susannah!, Bicycle Built for Two, Pop! Goes the Weasel, School Days, Take Me Out To the Ball Game, When the Roll is Called up Yonder.

I got her to give my name, but am fairly certain she hadn’t a clue who I am.

She is sinking deeper and deeper into her dementia.

Her hands still know how to make a dog sit happily in her lap.

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February 21, 2015–another scare

I got a call from QO yesterday at lunchtime.  She hadn’t wanted to eat and seemed suddenly unresponsive and unmoving.  The head nurse suggested a mini-stroke, and “what did I want to do about it?”

Geesh!

I asked her to put the phone to Mother’s ear and tried about three different times to talk with her with no success.  The nurse said she “wiped her mouth and scratched her nose,” which were “purposeful movements.”  So I suggested they get her clean and dry and put her down for a nap and I’d check back in a couple of hours.

I spent the time packing a few things, making sure the cat would be okay for a couple of days, gathered food and bedding for the dogs, and expected to be spending the night.

Called back.  She was fine, hungry, thirsty, talking with the staff.  Talked with them again in the evening, same thing, except she had wanted seconds at supper!

When I visited her today, she was tired but glad for the company, especially her faithful William.  I am “Phyllis” most of the time now, which is fine.  She really doesn’t know–or care–who is talking to her.  She just likes the attention.

photo

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February 19, 2014–poem

I found this on Facebook.  Don’t know the author, but love the expression.  The best of her IS gone.

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