Marshall: A vigil for a father in hospice

Islander columnist Becky Fox Marshall writes this month about the last days spent at her father’s side.

I am memorizing the room like my life depends on it.

The walls are buttery yellow. Cheerful, but not too much so. Warm and calming, like a sunrise.

Hardwood floors and modern, halogen lighting, a handmade quilt over the loveseat. It reminds me of a four-star hotel room. My sister is doing a puzzle on a small, round pedestal table in the corner under a flat-screen TV cantilevered from the wall. CNN is on, but it’s muted. Blagojevich has been unanimously ousted by Illinois lawmakers. His mouth is moving but there is no sound.

My dad takes a breath and then is silent. We both look at him, wondering if that was his last. Long, agonizing seconds go by. Then another breath. My sister goes back to the puzzle, and I to my memorization. The sink is sparkling stainless steel and a new Sunbeam coffee maker sits on the shiny granite counter, next to a package of mouth swabs and dad’s single-coffee bags.

The lighting is soft over the hospital bed, which looks more like a modern Dania single bed, its rails and controls hidden and subtle. Everything about this room is understated and soothing. Most remarkably, it is completely uncluttered. There is nothing unnecessary. Everything that could be put away is put away. Just like you want your life to be at the very end.

I wonder if dad made that correlation when we moved him in 10 days ago. I wonder if he was able to make the distinction between a nursing home and a hospice care facility. To us, it was clear. A private room. No bustling about like a hospital. The halls are wide and clear and beautiful. There are no bleeps or electronic alarms or gurneys – there is nothing alarming. Not even the people. No one is taking his vitals or his blood or his breath unnecessarily. They are intrusive only to the point where they can ensure his comfort.

The staff speaks softly and calmly. They look into your eyes. They are tender with him, and with us. They take the time to explain. They’re incredibly kind and compassionate.

He takes another breath and falls silent. My sister walks to his bedside and takes his hand. But it’s not him. He takes a breath. We settle back in, not sure how long we should stay or if we’ll be back tomorrow. That’s the thing about vigils, you just don’t know how long it’s going to last.

There are even magnets on the refrigerator. We used them to put up five or six pictures, so we could be reminded of better times and the staff could see his life before this place. They don’t say so, but they seem mindful of the fact that the person in the bed is in a temporary place, like a newborn baby’s state upon birth. That wrinkly little creature covered with a sticky white film is only temporarily grotesque. The passages in and out of this life are rough on a person. So dad, with his rheumy eyes and sallow skin is not our dad, but the evidence of his slipping away.

So we look at the pictures held to the fridge, We remember him as a young father, a tolerant grandfather of toddlers and a joyful great-grandfather. We recall the family vacations, the Christmas mornings, the summers on the beach – and read our magazines while the figure in the bed fights its lonely battle. One foot here, and one foot where we can’t see it. The surrender is not easy.

Later, we slip out for the night after I’ve memorized the room and the family grows hungry. We kiss his head and hold his hand, thank him for all he’s done for us and let him know we’ll be OK; that he can let go. At dinner, we consider the gift of hospice.

A couple of hours after we return to our homes, we get the call. The vigil is over. The journey has been profound and, in an odd way, joyful. Thanks, Dad.

-Becky Fox Marshall