Making Every Moment Count
That Dreaded Phone Call
On a freezing cold day in January, we were called to the hospital on behalf of my mother’s older sister, Helen. Our family stood around her bedside, helplessly gazing at her tiny frame hoping for any signs of consciousness. We longed for some sign of cognition which we were told was not likely due to her advance age at ninety-four. We were told that her chance for recovery from this point was slim.
As she struggled, fighting against oxygen tubes, arms thrashing against the bed-rails, moaning in her restless sleep, her eyes remained closed despite all attempts to rouse her. Standing beside the bed, I wished that I could gaze into those electric blue eyes one more time. For now, she was in the hands of caregivers in whose care her existence was measured out moment by moment.
Pacing the quiet corridors of the hospital. it occurred to me that any material possessions Helen gathered while working for eighty years had suddenly become insignificant. In the grand scheme of things, it became clear that no bank account, piece of jewelry, designer dress nor item of furniture would ever be of use to her again.
Nothing else seemed important that day but to spend a few more hours with our loved one.
Sisters in the 1930s
Swift & Company
Children in Factories
Helen started working at age twelve at the Armour meat packing plant. In was necessary to support the family after her father passed away at thirty-five, leaving behind a wife and three young children. Helen's mother (my Grandmother) arrived to the United States in 1904 on a ship from Bremen, Germany. Her journey started from her family home in Vienna, Austria after her own father passed away. She was fourteen and began working for her uncle and aunt in their boarding house.
Helen worked at Swift Dairy and Poultry Company for over thirty four years from 1941 to 1975. After retiring at age sixty-five, she took a job in bookkeeping at Saint Joseph's Hospital. As a single mother in the days when being divorced was uncommon, she continued to support her mother, sister and her own child, often holding down two jobs.
The Dancing Queen
In the seventies and eighties, she and her younger sister Louise took dance lessons with Fred Astaire Studios. They competed in international dance tournaments, taking home many trophies. Together, they traveled to Spain and danced their way across the country.
In the Eighties
Helen worked well into her eighties, running the snack shop at a downtown bank in Fort Worth, Texas. She was a single mother who often worked two jobs.
Sisters in 2003
Life Altering Decisions
Back in the hospital room, the specialist at long last arrived to evaluate Helen's future dietary needs, taking into consideration her inability to swallow food on her own. After a brief examination that lasted less than ten minutes, she hastily left the room. I chased after her, running down the hall to ask the painful question, the one we dreaded. Yes, they would be withdrawing any food given by mouth.
In those brief moments, this young woman determined that my aunt would never eat food again. We were left to decide if she should be intubated since she would likely aspirate any food given orally. Unfamiliar with medical terms, I asked for more explanation. This meant she would likely inhale food into her lungs causing respiratory infection or choking. They suggested surgically inserting a feeding tube into her stomach. It was up to us to make that decision for her.
Think of Me
Living Wills and Advance Directives
We held a grim family conference speaking in hushed tones about what she would have wanted. There was no living will to advise us of her wishes, no clue as to her preferences. We had only our own conscience to guide our decision concerning the grim sentence of the therapist whose ten minute analysis would set the course of Helen’s existence.
We reached the consensus that she would not have wanted her life to be prolonged artificially if there were no hope for recovery, no quality of life remaining. We informed the doctor of our desires not to force feed this body that could no longer sustain the functions of daily life on its own.
Reflecting on Wasted Moments
When I thought about the countless hours squandered staring at a computer screen, on the telephone or commuting to another faceless workday, I saw my life in a different light. I wondered about the strangers with whom I had shared a chunk of my life if any would even remember my name these years later. I considered the times I’d lost my temper or let road rage overwhelm me in the insufferable city traffic of my daily commute to work.
I wondered if I could be forgiven for the wasted moments that I would now gladly pass along to my dear aunt if only it were possible. The many times she’d invited me for a visit when my career, travel or idle pastimes kept me away flashed as videos through my mind. I began to recall the few precious hours when we spent time together. There were so many things I should have asked, so many things about her life that would now and forever be lost.
To Making It Count - Titanic Movie
The hospital released her back to the nursing home where she had spent the previous two years after suffering a stroke that left her mostly unable to talk or tend to her own needs. She was in the care of underpaid angels whose duties encompass caring for those in her condition.
The nursing home’s policy of compassion would not allow her to fade away by starvation. They patiently set her upright in a wheelchair and began to offer her pureed food. Astounding as it may seem, she began to accept nourishment and water surprising us with her determination to survive. Her death sentence was temporarily overturned while she lived another five months before she finally succumbed. I was grateful for another chance to look into her beautiful eyes and feel her kiss my hand.
She knew we were there by her side when. near midnight, she was administered last rites by a local priest. After we left on the last day we would spend with her, she passed quietly in the night, ready to begin her new life on the other side where she is dancing with the stars.
And then there were two...
Making it Count
I vowed to never be the same again, to make every moment count, and remember that no matter what we accumulate while on this earth, the only thing we’ll take with us is the love we’ve earned while we’re here. We're here to love each other as He loved us. Love is all we need.
© 2015 Peg Cole
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