13 January 2012

Guardian of Death’s Stream of Consciousness

by Dixon Hill

Crazy title, huh?

But, hey! That’s actually why my post is up so late.

This picture shows my mom & dad sitting on the glider on their front porch in October 2009. That monkey-like kid is my youngest son, Quentin.

See, my mom has been in Hospice care for about ten months (ever since I took her home from the hospital – one month after driving her there, for a one-week surgery stay – that went south in a very bad way.)

What’s that got to do with a late posting on the blog???

Well, my 84-year-old dad has been (at his insistence) acting as her primary care giver, because — as he puts it: “I’ve taken care of her for the sixty years of our marriage. I’ve just got to take care of her now, son. This isn’t a thing I can let anybody else do.”

Now, that’s what I call “Hard-core!”

. . . coming from an octogenarian who’s been getting around with a cane for the past few years, and lost all vision in one eye the same month my mom initially entered the hospital for her surgery. He’s had over 13 operations on his eyes, due to macular degeneration, etc. over the past 30 years, so he currently can only see at about 20/200 (if I’ve got it right) out of the other eye — even when wearing a contact lens and glasses. When my mom was in the hospital, though, he insisted that I drive him down to visit her as often as he could physically make it . . . complete with eye patch, and while suffering (what he saw as) the indignity of having his youngest son push him through the place with a wheel chair.

I worry about Dad, of course. We all do. But, I think you gotta respect a guy who’s willing to stick-out the “till death do we part” portion of his vows right down to the wire. And that wire – like one of the hair-fine trip-wires I used to rig booby traps with, back as an SF Demo Man – is stretched tight. And it’s right in front of my mom’s feet, now. Just inches, I think. Though, of course, I can’t see it.

You never can see trip-wires . . .

not if they're properly rigged and camouflaged. You have to get down in the prone position with a blade of thin grass (if you’ve got it) in your mouth, then use your tongue to move the blade up and down as you inch your body forward, ever-watching for the blade’s tell-tale bend when it comes up against a wire. I’ve done it dozens of times in practice, and several times for real, the sweat pouring off my body as everybody behind me held their breath. [The guys in Iraq & Afghanistan, incidentally, have taken to short-circuiting that method by spraying Silly String in front of them. The pink Silly String serves the same purpose, without tripping the wire.]

Dad almost made it --- with a little help from a hired-care agency, but things went haywire last week. I got a call at 3:30 am. Dad’s scared, yet apologetic voice: “Help, son! I’m on the floor. I don’t know what happened. But, I just can’t get up. I’m stuck. If I stand up, I pass out. Help me!” My wife stayed with my mom, while my daughter watched over our son at home, as I took my dad in to the ER. After initially thinking he’d had a heart attack or stroke, they finally realized he was quite simply – and completely – exhausted. Since that morning, my brother and I have taken turns spending the night at my parents' house.

They let dad go home a couple days later, but he’s still nowhere near fully charged up. Nonetheless, he insisted on being released as soon as possible – so he could get back to his dying wife’s bedside. Since then, I’ve managed to drive him to two doctor’s appointments, while the hired-care helper watched mom. My brother’s been a huge help, as have both our wives. But, something went a little wonky with the care-givers, and that’s thrown an additional monkey wrench into the works. Just as the Hospice nurse has broken out the special meds they reserve for when their patient is approaching the final end. For some reason – maybe because I’ve got some limited medical experience from my SF days and took care of my mom’s IV when she had it in, and also changed her ileostomy bag for the first couple of months, before the hired care givers learned how – the Hospice nurse has seemed to focus certain information onto me. So, she told me, about five days ago, that she’d started giving mom those meds.

Which is how I came to sit up last night (my shift), smoking a cigar while sitting in the glider on the front porch of their small block ranch house in Scottsdale (the one in the picture), the Christmas lights still up on the bushes and eves of the house, and all turned on, because I had the baby monitor receiver plugged into the extension cord that fed them juice. Mom's labored breathing came in broken, lingering snatches, through the monitor, a whisper of a whistle from her damp throat and lungs. The noise soaked the dark night, as I sat reading The Way Through the Woods, listening for any sign of tell-tale change.

Later, inside, I sat by her bed, after rubbing her back without rolling her over off of it, so that she could look up as I worked. My dad snored and mumbled in his sleep beside her. She’s gotten to that place where she sometimes stops breathing for long stretches of time. Then suddenly her chest heaves as she gasps deep gulps of air. All while still asleep. She’s been a heavy woman all my life, until now. Now, I could lift her with ease – if it didn’t cause her pain. I could feel her ribs just inside the skin of her back when I rubbed her. I’ve never felt her ribs before; it wasn’t possible. Ever.

I wrote once about Happy Endings, and Positive Endings.

And I still promise to write more about the latter in an upcoming post. But, it occurs to me, this is a good place to plant a seed of my thoughts about positive endings. Because, while a mother’s (or wife’s) death can seldom be termed a Happy Ending, I think it can be considered a Positive Ending. When my mom finally takes that last step – her first step into what comes next – she’ll be stepping out of the pain that’s caused the Hospice nurse to finally break out the last-resort meds. And that’s a positive things for her.

And I know Mom sees it as not only a last step, but also as that First Step. I’ve spoken to her about what she’s been dreaming during her long, recent sleeping spells. And, in a tiny country-mouse voice so unlike hers has always been, she tells me she’s been dreaming of things such as, “My first day of school, when I was a little girl.” I think that country-mouse voice might be the voice of that little girl she once was, living in what she called “The Tanglewood” of rural Colorado and Oklahoma as a child. And the dreams she tells me about are always centered around similar themes: A new beginning, one which is frightening but good.

And that, I suppose, is the little seed at the root of what I think of as a Positive Ending.

And – with humble apologies – it’s also why this post is late going up. I simply forgot.

My dad is watching her for an hour or so, while I type this up and get it posted. Then I’ll go back on duty as a strange, but ultimately very common, guardian of death.

See you in two weeks – on time, I PROMISE!



  1. Hey Bud, to be able to write anything with all that going on, you have my admiration.
    We wish your Mom safe passage.

  2. Sorry for what you are going through, Dixon. My Mom died two years ago one day shy of her 90th birthday. My wife and I did hospice care for her at the end. It's a great gift to give but it sure as hell tears you apart while you are doing it. We sure wish you the best and that all goes well.

  3. You are doing the important things with family. It's a wonderful post and a wonderful family. Blessed be.

  4. Dixon, Robin and I just went through what's happening in your family, and I know it's hard. Her dad, who was a great guy and very much a father to me, lived with us under hospice care the last three months of his life. He died this past October. Like Dale, the experience really gutted us at times, but in the end, it's all worth being there for the folks, if you can; after all, they've always been there for us.

    God bless you and yours.

  5. I went through what you are going through in 1997 when my mom became ill. She died at home in her own bed, which is what she wanted. What you are doing is admirable. I think we all understand considering the circumstances if your posts are late.

  6. My wife and I have been through the kinds of things you've described, with both her parents and my father, and I agree that it's one of the hardest things in the world to do. My mother's 85 and in good health at the moment, so we're counting blessings there.

    This was a moving and wonderful piece of writing. I wish you and your family the very best.

  7. Dix, my thoughts go out to you. Dick Francis once wrote that good manners are a sign of strength. Sometimes, like this, good writing is the same.

    Here's for positive endings.

  8. Thanks for posting this. Amazing how one's thoughts move fast in times like this.

  9. Dixon, when I learned it was your date, I immediately thought something had gone worse in caring for your parents. Bless you for being the kind of son that I believe mine to be. My mom's had some complications--infection of the surgical incision and pneumonia. I'm an only child, but both sons have been right there.
    As though anything about parents' illnesses can bring a smile. You brought one to me when you mentioned teaching the caregivers to care for your mom's illeostomy.
    My mother-in-law had an illeostomy at Walter Reed when I was in my early twenties. When she returned, she stayed with my then-husband and me and I cared for her. She developed blood clots and had to be hospitalized at Monmouth Army Hospital. I received a phone call that my mother-in-law wanted me at the hospital. When I arrived, I found her in soaking bed linens. "Show these damn nurses what to do!" she demanded. They'd stuck a catheter into the illeostomy opening and expected that to take care of things. Some of the nurses never did learn to get a proper seal. I will pray for everyone in your family, and your dad has to be one of the best husbands ever.

  10. Dixon, you make me proud to know you. Like the others, when your article didn't pop on-line, I knew something had to be wrong.

    You have a wonderful family and somehow managed to post a moving tribute in the midst of all you're going through. Best thoughts to your parents and I'm glad you're with us.

  11. Do not worry about posting at all. Your folks are your first priority and to have you with them at this difficult time will be a great comfort to them both.
    Thinking of you at this hard time.

  12. Thanks to everybody for all the kind things you wrote.

    Amazing to me that so many of us share this same experience—though undoubtedly with many different details. But, why should that amaze me?

    After all: Death is universal. Isn’t it?

    Yet, I suppose, each one meets in his/her own way.

    Thanks, gang!
    --Dix (Posting Sunday night, while my brother has “The Shift.”)


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