I recall, still with considerable amazement, a patient who was nearing the time of his death. He had chosen hospice, so he could remain at home until the end. Martha, his wife of sixty-some years, along with their grown daughter, were his dedicated, loving caregivers. I don’t think I ever saw this gentleman alone. Someone was always in the living room with him, which is where he’d asked his hospital bed to be set up, because he wanted to be in the “hub of things”. One day he told me that friends and family had always been the most important focus of his life, and that “I want to live until I die, not lay back there alone in that old, dark bedroom. I want to be with my family around me when I die”; hence, the hospital bed in the living room, where he could remain at the center of activity, surrounded by the people who were the most important part of his life.
This man, who I’ll call Charlie, had made many friends throughout his lifetime. Friends came by often to say hello, relatives popped in, and people from his church visited with frequent regularity. Charlie had befriended a homeless person or two along the path of his earthly journey, and they had been embraced as family; and they paid it forward when he needed them, for a change, during his last days of life. His wife said that, early in their marriage, she’d gotten used to Charlie “bringing home the homeless for dinner”. This was not limited solely to human beings. Martha told me that Charlie couldn’t stand to see a homeless dog or cat, and do nothing about it. He’d post posters on telephone poles, check with the local vet, put signs in store windows, even pay for “lost & found” ads in the newspaper. If an owner couldn’t be found, Charlie adopted it or them. On one single day, Martha recalled, he came home from the grocery store with 2 scruffy-looking mutts and a kitten he’d found wandering by the freeway, looking lost and hungry, unkempt and frightened, and without ID tags. “They were all male, so they became Pete, Peter, and Peterless,” Martha told me, a little moisture gathering in her eyes. “The dog he named Peterless was the neutered one,” she said, giggling at the memory.
He was a beloved man. Neighbors tended the yard, brought food, and sat with Charlie on the rare occasions when Martha left his side to run an errand or two. At night, Martha slept in the living room on the hide-a-bed, “just to listen to him breathe”.
“One night,” Martha spoke softly to me, taking care not to wake Charlie, “when I thought he was asleep, I felt something brush against my blan–” She had to pause, to let the catch in her throat ease. “I felt something brush against my blanket, and it was Charlie, trying to find my hand.” Martha swallowed back hard and pursed her lips tightly together, as she regained her composure. “He held my hand all night long.” Giant tears poured out of the corners of her eyes, and into the grooves by her nose, finally spilling off her chin. She didn’t bother to wipe them away.
Charlie and Martha had four children. Emilie, their daughter, lived in the same small town, only blocks away. Three sons, grown and in their mid-life, lived on the East Coast of the United States. Emilie, their only daughter, was also the youngest of the four children. Charlie still called her “Baby Doll”, and Emilie said she loved that. “We’ve always been close, Daddy and I, and I think I was an accident, because I’m ten years younger than Jeff.” Jeff was second to the youngest child. Emilie grinned and blushed, as Charlie reached out to give her a hug. He scuffed his chin, covered with the whitest-of-white goatee I’ve ever seen, against her cheek, then winked.
“It’s all your mom’s fault, you know,” Charlie said, winking again, this time at Martha. “She never could keep her hands off me. I can’t say I blame her, can you?” He laughed a belly laugh filled with gusto, despite his weakening condition.
Martha blushed. “Charlie. Stop that now. Our nurse is here.” She chastised him gently, then tousled his thinning hair with both hands, and hugged his face into her breasts. “Love you. Love you always.”
Emilie said, “Sometimes when I can’t sleep, and I know Daddy can’t sleep either, I get up on that bed,” she pointed to the extended-twin sized hospital bed, “and I snuggle up. Before I know it, Daddy’s snoring like a lion!” She laughed. “Then I really can’t sleep!” Her gaze drifted into a space, mid-room, looking at everything, looking at nothing. “But I know I won’t be able to be annoyed by his snoring for very much longer, so it’s okay. It’s okay. I want to remember that snore.”
One week later, I visited Charlie and his family. I hardly recognized him. Martha and Emilie reported to me that the day after our last visit, Charlie had gone to sleep, and now was sleeping nearly ’round the clock. He had stopped eating. He was not conversing, except a nod “yes” or “no”, now and then. I made a call to the doctor to report the changes. I drew blood to check on Charlie’s kidney function. The results were not good. I sat with Emilie and Martha and explained what was happening, now, to Charlie, that his kidneys were not working well, and they could not be fixed.
“But, what does that mean?” Martha asked, an edge of panic in her voice.
“That means,” I spoke slowly, and cupped one of her hands in both of mine. I looked directly at her, and at Emilie, “That means that Charlie doesn’t have much time left. His kidneys have nearly stopped functioning. The doctor says, maybe a week, maybe a few days.” I did as much as I could to reassure Martha and Emilie that Charlie’s decline and death should not be painful, but instructed them on what to do if they noted signs of pain, such as grimacing, moaning, or crying out. I assured them that a nurse was on-call through hospice at any time of the day or night, and that no question was too small or “silly”. I encouraged them to call, if they had any concerns at all, or if they just wanted to talk a bit.
Martha and Emilie cried. I sat quietly with them. There was little else I could do.
As the days passed, as Charlie continued to refuse food, as he slept more and more of the time, we waited, expecting death to arrive at any moment. But it did not. One week passed, then ten days. One day, I asked Martha, “Is there anything that you can think of that might be keeping Charlie here? Is there anything at all?” I waited, as she searched her mind for an answer. “Are there any anniversaries? Birthdays?” Then as suddenly as I’d asked the question, I sat bolt upright. “Your sons! When are they coming? He could be waiting for them!”
I scanned Martha’s face, her eyes drawn with emotional exhaustion. Her eyelids were rimmed red from too many tears and too little sleep. “We’ve talked about that. My sons and I and Charlie talked about that! How could I forget something so important?” She wrung her hands, got up and paced back and forth across the room. “We talked about that before Charlie got so sick. Charlie told them he understood if their jobs kept them away, but when the time came nearer, he’d like to see them.” Her chin quivered, and she swallowed hard, struggling to hold back a flood of tears. “But they just cannot get out here for at least another week and a half. There’s just no way!” She shook her head back and forth. Her shoulders heaved with a deep, shuddering breath. “Do you think that’s it? Could he be waiting to see them?”
I scanned my brain, searching for the right words to say. “He could be. But, Martha, he won’t be able to make it for another ten days. Is there any way at all they can get out here sooner?”
Martha, eyes downcast, said, “None. None at all.”
The three sons from the East Coast held positions in middle-management, and all three were on work-related trips out of the country for their employers. It seemed that, perhaps the one thing that had always been most important to Charlie ~ family and friends ~ was the one thing he would not be able to have granted as his last request: to see each of his family members just one more time, to say good-bye to them, face-to-face.
“It’s impossible for him to hold out,” I thought to myself. It already seemed impossible for him to have survived even for this amount of time. It was unimaginable to think of him lasting another ten days. The labs said he should be dead, already. Yet, he continued to live.
“Call your sons, Martha. Maybe they can work something out. At least you can ask.”
Three weeks after the doctor had pronounced that Charlie could not survive more than a week, the sons were to arrive home. Charlie was rarely awake, and when awake, he was not lucid. But the morning of the sons’ arrival, I suggested that Martha tell Charlie that the boys would be there to see him that very day. To tell him they’d be there within just a few hours.
“But, I don’t even think he can hear me!” Martha protested.
“We don’t know what he can hear, Martha. Tell him, anyway.”
Martha ambled slowly, cautiously to Charlie’s bedside. He appeared to be deeply asleep. He hadn’t spoken for days. She took his hand in hers, and stroked it with the other. “The boys will be here in a few hours, Sweetheart. Just hang on. They’re almost here.” She kissed his forehead, and laid her head across his chest.
And then something truly miraculous happened. Charlie, from deep in a coma, roused. He rallied from a faraway place, at the sound of his wife’s words telling him of his sons’ imminent arrival. It was as though he had never been asleep. With help, he sat up in bed and asked for a glass of orange juice.
“Maybe he’s going to get better!” Martha exclaimed to me, as she rushed to get Charlie his orange juice. “He’s always been a fighter, you know.” She choked back tears, then rubbed the salty moisture from her face with her shirtsleeve.
I remained silent.
She turned toward me, then hung her head and stared at the floor. “But he isn’t, is he?” she asked me. Her head jerked up and she looked straight into my eyes, wordlessly begging for me to tell her that Charlie was coming back, Charlie was going to be okay.
I wrapped an arm around Martha’s fragile shoulder. “No, Martha, he isn’t.” I hated saying those words. “He’s just got to see his sons one more time.”
Martha carried the orange juice into the living room, and Charlie sat smiling, eager for his sons’ arrival.
One by one, that afternoon, each son visited privately with their father. They talked of happier times, of fond memories, of feelings there have been no names put to. They each said “Good Bye.” Emilie curled up against her father, and clung to him until he began to snore again. Martha sat beside his bed, and held her last vigil with the man she’d loved for so many years.
The sons stayed the night. When they awoke the next morning, they found Charlie motionless in his bed. He had died during the night. But he’d gotten his wish. He’d ended his life doing the one thing that was the most important to him: he’d gotten to be with his family.
The labs and all of medical science said he shouldn’t have survived that three weeks, to see his sons. But Charlie did. Love must be the strongest force in the world. Love must be stronger, even, than death.
©Janet Mitchell, November 2011. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction.