End of Life Therapy

I spent two days recently with friends in Boise.

It was a very sad trip. I went to say goodbye to Hilary. She has a rare cancer of the blood, and is home with hospice care. Her time is short. Her husband Bob called to say I should come as soon as I could. She wanders in and out of lucidity. He wanted me to be able to spend time with her while she might still recognize me, even talk with me.

I took the girls along. Bob and Hilary have babysat the girls in the past, and have visited up here several times. They have four of their five acres fenced, and the girls love romping through their field, hunting voles, scaring up the geese and ducks that pause at the pond toward the back.

I was surprised, upon arriving, to be greeted by a very eager and friendly Yellow Lab named Tucker. After careful introductions - one girl and a time so Tucker wouldn't feel intimidated - all three dogs got along famously.

I spent most of my time inside with Hilary, doing what I could to make her comfortable, talking to her when she was able, and giving Bob a break to sleep and run errands. Forming, and uttering, a simple sentence wears Hilary out and often puts her back into her morphine-induced sleep. Despite it all, her sense of humor is intact. Once when I went to touch her arm, warning that my hands were cold, she immediately opened her eyes and finished the saying, cold hands, "...warm heart, stinky feet." I let out a whoop of laughter, so unexpected was that!

I credit Hilary with teaching me, twenty years ago, the value of a hug.

During my visit, several of Hilary's friends came by, including many from her women's group. They've been meeting every other week for nearly 20 years, and number anywhere from six to twelve depending on the day of the gathering. How awesome for them to have their meeting at Hilary's house, two or three of them at a time going to visit in her room, carrying on conversations whether Hilary was able to participate or even keep her eyes open or not. They brought munchies, wine, and laughter. It was wonderful.

I remember thinking, this is the true measure of a life: the number and quality of friends who come to be with you when you're leaving this world. It's not money nor possessions that measure one's success in life. It's friendships and relationships. Hilary is a very successful, well-off and well-loved woman.

Tucker, being a regular guest at their home - and cat-friendly - is allowed in their house. (My girls aren't, which is fine; they would chase Twitch the cat, and prefer being outside anyway.) At one point, as I sat with Hilary, Tucker came into the bedroom. I wasn't sure if that was allowed, so in an effort to engage Hilary, told her Tucker had arrived to see her and I hoped that was OK with her. "It's more than OK" she said, struggling with the words. They were the first she'd spoken in hours and they took much effort. She opened her eyes to look at Tucker, and smiled.

Ah, dogs. Best therapists in the world.

I tried to get Tucker to put his front paws into my lap so Hilary could pet him. He refused. I thought it odd, but figured the metal railings on Hilary's hospice bed frightened him. Hilary had already closed her eyes and fallen back into sleep.

As my stay progressed, I noticed that Tucker would occasionally wander back into the bedroom to see me. He would plant himself beside me, looking at me with those soulful brown eyes, just within petting reach. He always faced me, never Hilary. He would occasionally look over his shoulder at her laying in the bed, then return his focus to me. He never went to sniff at the bed or try to sniff Hilary. Finally I realized that he was uncomfortable with Hilary's illness, with her impending death. He was focused on assisting me. And Bob. Interesting.

When it came time for me to go, I wavered, then decided to wake Hilary up to say I was leaving. She awoke immediately, with eyes clear and bright, totally focused on me. She whispered "Thank you for coming," and puckered her lips in an invitation for me to kiss her goodbye. Then she simply gazed at me with her beautiful blue eyes and a smile on her lips. I started crying, speechless at first, then said the only thing I could think of, "Be kind to yourself."

"I will," she replied, as I kissed her on the forehead and smoothed her hair.

She continued looking at me, more deeply into my eyes, my soul, than anyone ever has before. Her warmth and caring radiated toward me. She reached out a hand to caress my face. I was stunned, moved, feeling so privileged that she ushered the strength to give me such a heartfelt goodbye. I kissed her forehead again, dripping tears on her face, and left before I lost all control.

Bob followed me out. On the front steps out the house, we hugged and cried and tried to comfort each other. "It's awful, isn't it? The finality of it?" I agreed that it was, and told him I thought he is incredibly brave.

My girls were already in my car. I got in, crying, and drove away, telling them how much I love them. I'm thankful I have them to love me and make me feel better, daily.

The photo with this entry isn't Tucker. It's Jeeter, one of the CCI (Canine Companions for Independence) service dogs I wrote about for Bark Magazine. But they have the same look, same eyes, same soft golden ears to stroke. I was grateful for Tucker's attention to me. I only wish he could have provided more comfort to Hilary, although clearly she knew he was in the room and wanted him there.