"It's Time to Get in Line."
Joe paced anxiously–back and forth–at the foot of Laura's bed. There was an odd stillness in the room. He edged around the nurse's aid and the corner of the dresser so he could sit by his wife's side on the bed. Deeply concerned, he picked up her hand and began rubbing it.
"Laura, are you all right?" he asked. "Talk to me!"
She smiled dreamily and nodded, but said nothing. This upset Joe.
"Laura, it's me," he said. "Say something! I'm worried about you!"
"Joe, I'm okay," she whispered.
Joe looked to the nurse's aide, who responded with a look of uncertainty.
"Sweetheart, do you hurt?" he asked. "Do you need anything? Is something wrong? Darling, please tell me what it is?"
Laura smiled again, closed her eyes, and shook her head. Joe signaled for the aide to join him in the hall.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "She was fine this morning. A little weak, maybe, but fine. We had a cup of tea together."
The aide patted Joe's shoulder. "She just got this way. I don't know what's wrong. She's taken her medicines on schedule and she ate a little breakfast. Does she seem a bit confused to you?"
"It's had to tell," Joe said. "She's not talking much. She seems real strange. We'd better call the nurse. I know something's wrong! Joe nervously reached for the phone.
SOMEONE YOU CARE ABOUT may be very ill, perhaps dying. There's so much to do–tests, hospitalizations, visits to doctors' offices. Sometimes there are two or three physicians to deal with–a surgeon, oncologist, radiologist, other specialists.
The medicine chest is jammed with partially used medicines–some bottles nearly full, others almost empty–as new and different ones are tried. Medical equipment seems to occupy every corner of the house. All the furniture has been rearranged, whether to allow a wheelchair to pass or to permit a fast trip to the bathroom.
Coping with terminal illness is more than hard work–it's all-consuming and creeps into every corner of your life. There are so many people to talk to, so many questions to ask, so much to do. The hopes and triumphs of new or different treatments can change quickly into fears and failures. It's an exhausting, emotional roller-coaster ride. It's like having an unwanted and uninvited stranger in your midst, who seems to take up more and more space.
A terminal illness doesn't belong only to the one who is sick–it affects family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers. Not unlike a still pond disturbed by a falling stone, an impending death sends ripples through all the relationships in the life of the dying. Each person involved has his or her own set of issues, fears, and questions.
Beyond coming to terms with the loss of someone we care about, we find ourselves with a jumble of conflicting emotions shaken loose by confronting human limitations and mortality: How can this be happening? I feel powerless–what can I do to help? I don't want to face this–what's it like to die? Is there anything after death? Why are the people around me behaving this way? I feel lost and helpless. What do I do? What do I say?
Is it possible to find anything positive in this devastating event? Can this remaining time be used to share treasured moments of living, while coping with the many losses death brings? Rather than dying on a continuum, can this person be helped to live until he or she dies? Can this be a time of personal growth for all involved?
LAURA HAD SPENT HER LIFE as a teacher, but when she retired and her first husband died, she decided to become a student again. This time her university was the world and she quenched her thirst for knowledge and new experiences by traveling–seeking new faces and new places.
In India she met Joe–a fellow traveler in her tour group. An enthusiastic widower of seventy-nine, he had an inviting twinkle in his eye and shared Laura's touring style–each lived out of a backpack, like the far younger vagabonds they encountered on the road. They were immediately drawn to each other, fell in love, returned home, and–much to the surprise of the grown children they both had–announced their engagement.
The wedding was small and charming, attended by their children and grandchildren. Laura wore a sari she'd bought in India and was given away by one of her grandsons. She'd chosen Robbie to do the honors because she wanted to feel a sense of connection with his mother–her daughter Susan, who'd died of breast cancer the year before at the age of forty-five.
Joe's best man was his son. After the ceremony, everyone feasted on Indian food served on Laura's treasured antique Russian china.
Laura sold her house and gave away much of her furniture; Joe moved out of the apartment he'd occupied since his first wife's death. They rented a one-bedroom apartment in a retirement complex, which was crammed with the belongings that once had filled their two large houses. It was a squeeze for them to pass each other in the narrow hallway, cluttered with cabinets, mirrors, storage shelves, and clocks from Joe's collection. But they were happy, and Laura was able to indulge her passion for gardening by working on the building's grounds.
Once settled, Joe and Laura returned to traveling–now as a twosome. The once-tedious aspects of the tourist life–baggage lines, ticket lines, customs lines, lines for planes and buses and trains–now were occasions to enjoy one another's company.
Joe was quite forgetful, so he relied heavily on Laura as an organizer and manager–roles she loved.
They had to cut short a trip to Mexico celebrating Laura's eighty-third birthday, when she came down with dysentery. Her condition persisted until she had to be hospitalized for dehydration. But X-rays showed a tumor in her colon, which when removed was found to be malignant. The cancer had already spread to Laura's liver and, considering her age, aggressive treatment wasn't recommended, the doctors said she had about six months to live.
Joe took this news badly, seeming to become more muddled than usual. Laura decided to spend her remaining time at home with Joe, who was eager to help in any way he could. They decided to call the hospice for help and support.
The next four months passed uneventfully. Laura's discomfort was minimal, and easily controlled with medications. Their families visited often, bringing meals or simply spending time with her. She and Joe would sit for hours paging through albums of photos from their trips and their younger days. These weren't always happy interludes; pictures of Susan as a healthy young woman always made Laura cry.
"Mothers aren't supposed to outlive their children," she'd say. "I miss her so much. It should have been me, not her."
However, Laura was stoic about her own situation, and did her best to maintain her social contacts and gracious manners. But her terminal diagnosis and increasing dependency were beginning to overwhelm Joe. His distress showed in his behavior. When Laura asked for a pain pill, he would dash off with great purpose, but distract himself along the way with a series of meaningless activities, and forget the medicine.
Laura's children dealt with this by hiring a home health aide, who wound up spending nearly as much time and energy helping Joe as she did Laura.
They managed quite well until the morning Laura's behavior changed. She refused the bath that she usually enjoyed, and seemed distracted and distant. Joe was alarmed when he called our hospice.
I arrived to find him agitated and impatiently waiting for me at the apartment door.
"She's different today," he said. "She's looking at us–but through us–like we're not there."
Laura seemed restless and preoccupied, picking at the bedcovers and staring into space with a faraway look in her eyes. A quick physical check revealed no apparent reason for the change in her behavior.
"What's happening to you, Laura?" I asked. "Where have you been?"
"It's time to get in line," she said.
"Tell me more about the line," I said. "Is there anybody there you know?"
"Susan is in the line," Laura said, breaking into a radiant smile, but continuing to stare into space.
"How nice for you," I said. "Would you like to get in line? Can you tell me more?"
Laura became thoughtful, and sad. After a few moments she said, "But Joe can't go with me."
I sensed that she was feeling torn between going to be with the daughter she missed so terribly and staying with the husband who needed her so much.
"That must be a hard choice for you, Laura," I said. "Can we help Joe get ready for the time when you have to get in line?"
Laura visibly relaxed, and simply said, "Yes."
Joe was in the living room, surrounded by antique furniture and exotic souvenirs from their travels. Around him half a dozen clocks were ticking, each one set at a different time. I joined him on the sofa and told him about my conversation with Laura. He began to cry.
"I know this is hard for you, Joe," I said, handing him tissues. "What do you think Laura is telling us?"
"It sounds like she's dreaming about seeing Susan," Joe said. "Like maybe they'll be reunited."
"What else do you think she might be saying?"
"It sounds like she wishes I could go with her," he said. "But I can't–maybe she's worried about that."
"Is there any specific reason Laura might be worried about leaving you behind?"
"I depend on her a lot," he said. "I suppose she's worried about how I'll get along without her."
"Do you have plans for managing on your own?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "I know I'm not as sharp as I used to be, so I'm going to move in with my son." Joe went on to describe in detail the arrangements he'd made.
"Your plans sound good," I said. "Does Laura know about them?"
Joe looked horrified. "You can't tell someone who's dying what you're going to do after they're gone!" he said.
I suggested that this might be exactly what Laura needed to hear, to ease her anguish about leaving him.
Joe hunched over, elbows on his knees, face hung in sadness.
"It's so hard to talk about this," he said. "I hate even thinking about it. It's just the worst thing I can imagine. . . ."
I let him continue to express his feelings and concerns for a while, then repeated my thoughts about Laura's needing reassurance that he understood what was happening to her. Joe would again lose focus, and I would gently remind him of what we were discussing. Several times he suddenly stood–as if to end the conversation–but seemed to realize there wasn't anywhere for him to go in the crowded room, and he would simply sit back down.
Finally, Joe was able to go into the bedroom, sit by Laura's side, and hold her hand. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he shared his plans and gave her permission to die.
"I hate that this is happening, but I know you have to go," he told her. "I'll bet you're worried about me, but I promise I'll be all right. Let me tell you about my plans, so you can rest easy."
Joe described what he would do after she died. He was going to spend winters with his youngest brother in Florida and summers with his son's family up North. Both homes had gardens; Joe told Laura he'd work to keep them as beautiful as she would.
"And I'll do my best to remember all the kids' birthdays–your grandchildren's and mine!" he said, kissing his wife.
After that conversation, Laura's preoccupation and restlessness stopped. She became peaceful, and remained so until she died a few days later–with Joe tearfully holding her hand.
COMMENTS LIKE LAURA'S–"It's time to get in line"–are often heard when someone is near death. It's easy to label such comments as "confusion," and stop listening. Had he done so, Joe would have missed these important messages:
I'm getting ready to die soon.
I'll be reunited with Susan.
I need to know that Joe understands and is prepared for my leaving.
I need assurance that he'll be all right after I'm gone.
Joe's honest response eased Laura's pain–not physical pain but emotional and spiritual pain. After Joe explained his plans and said good-bye, she was able to live out her last days without anguish, having the information she needed to die peacefully.
Dying people often employ symbolic language that evokes their life experiences. Laura and Joe had met while traveling, and their lives had been full of ticket lines, baggage lines, and passport lines. With her comment, she was telling him she must now prepare for her next journey–one she couldn't take with him–by getting "in line with Susan."
Laura's final gifts to Joe were the realization that she was concerned about his welfare, that she was not alone in her dying and would be reunited with Susan.
After Laura's funeral, Joe said, "I know she'll be waiting for me when I die–the way Susan was waiting for her." His experience with Laura's death was already changing Joe's expectations about his own death.
YOU, TOO, CAN GAIN the insight and understanding you need to find something good in the sadness and pain of losing someone you care about. What you learn from this book–and from dying people–you can carry forward into the rest of your life.
We are not researchers or philosophers; we're nurses who choose to work with dying people. The material in this book has come directly from our finest teachers–our dying patients, who have taught us what dying is like for them while they are experiencing it. What we have learned is so exciting and positive that it has changed our lives, and we have written this book to share those messages with you.
We didn't set out to develop a new theory on the special communication by the dying–we simply listened, with our ears, with our hearts, and with our minds. We now invite you to open your minds and hearts to the positive, final messages of the dying.