Making it Count
Helen and John
Helen's career started she was only twelve years old when she took a job at the meat plant to help support her family. She later became a single mother that worked two jobs to support her own young child, her mother and other family members.
She was no youngster when she discovered a new talent and took up ballroom dancing where she could express her creativity in a hobby at which she excelled.
Helen and her Daughter
One freezing cold day in January, the family was called to the hospital on behalf of Helen. Standing helplessly at her bedside gazing at her tiny body we could only hope she would regain consciousness. We were told she would not likely recognize us or return from wherever her mind had gone. At ninety-four her chances for recovery were slim.
She wrestled with the oxygen tubes, her arms thrashing against the bed-rails as she moaned in her sleep. Despite all attempts to rouse her, her electric blue eyes remained tightly closed. For the moment her fate resided in the hands of caregivers in whose care her existence was measured one moment at a time.
Helen and Louise
Pacing the quiet corridors of the hospital, it became clear that any material possessions Helen had gathered over ninety years suddenly became insignificant in the grand scheme of things. No bank account nor piece of jewelry, designer dress or item of furniture would ever be of use to her again.
At that moment, nothing else would be as important as spending time with her loved ones.
Helen took a job in the Armour meat packing plant in Fort Worth after her father passed away. As a single mother in the fifties, she continued to support her mother, sister and her own child. Her mother, an immigrant from Vienna, came to the United States in 1904 on a passenger ship from Germany after traveling across country following the death of her own father.
Helen worked at Swift Dairy and Poultry Company for thirty four years from 1941 to 1975. After retiring at age sixty-five, she took another job at Saint Joseph's Hospital as a bookkeeper.
Certificate of Promotion 1922
In the seventies and eighties, she and her younger sister, Louise, took dance lessons at the Fred Astaire Studios in Fort Worth. Together, they traveled to Spain and other countries, dancing their way across the country competing in ballroom dance tournaments, taking home a range of trophies.
Back in the hospital room, the specialist arrived to evaluate Helen's future dietary needs considering her inability to swallow food on her own. After a ten minute examination, she left the room without talking to the family. Chasing her down to ask the critical question, the one we all dreaded, her answer was, yes, the hospital would be withdrawing any food given by mouth.
In those few moments, a stranger decided that Helen would never eat food again. We were instructed to decide if she should be intubated or given food intravenously and told it was likely she would aspirate any food given orally which meant inhale food into her lungs causing respiratory infection or choking. They suggested surgically inserting a feeding tube into her stomach. Without a living will, it was up to the family to make that decision for her.
Have you ever had to make a life decision on behalf of a family member?
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 Lost 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.
Making It Count from the Movie Titanic
The hospital released her back to the nursing home where she had spent the previous two years after a stroke left her unable to talk or tend to her own needs. She was in the care of underpaid angels were to care for those in her condition.
The nursing home’s compassion policy would not allow Helen to fade away by starvation. They patiently set her upright in a wheelchair and giving her pureed food. Amazingly, she began to eat and drink again, surprising us with her determination to survive for an additional five months. Her death sentence was overturned giving us a chance to look into her beautiful eyes and feel her kiss on our hands.
Dancing with the Stars
Rest in Peace
Helen knew we were there with her when, as midnight approached on her last night on earth, the priest administered last rites. It was the final day we would ever spend with her and she passed quietly in the night, ready to begin her new life on the other side where she's happily dancing with the stars.
This experience brought out the importance of having an advanced directive or living will with preferences of what you want to happen if you become critically ill. A living will can specify whether you wish to be kept alive by artificial means if there is no hope for a cure to your illness, or not. It can list what you want to happen to your pets, where you want your savings account and money to go, and the charities where you want to donate your belongings.
No one wants to dwell on their mortality but leaving these important questions in the hands of others might not be a good plan. Make your loved ones aware of your wishes by putting them in writing, then, make every living moment count.
© 2015 Peg Cole