Carol was struggling to stay awake for my first visit. Her Chihuahua, Chito, however, was extremely awake and alert, and his constant yipping and yapping and snapping prompted me to remind myself that I actually like dogs. I was beginning to think he was the exception.
He barked as Carol and I talked, he barked as I played my guitar and sang to her, he barked as I held her hand. When he wasn’t barking, he was pacing – around my feet, up on her bed and down again, under the couch. It was hard enough to understand her soft voice and Japanese accent minus her teeth without the incessant yapping of this bug-eyed overgrown rat. He tried to bite me a few times, just to show me who was boss. His tiny mouth and tinier teeth did little damage, but it was the barking that was making me crazy. I thought about letting him out (and not letting him back in), but it was too hot for man or beast…and even though he was incredibly annoying, I do have a heart.
So Chito barked in my face as I pieced together the stories Carol shared – of coming to America when she was 19, of her military husband, of becoming a seamstress, of loving life, sake and cigarettes. She was now dying of lung cancer, not outwardly regretting her earlier indulgences. She was kind and funny and gentle, stroking Chito whenever he jumped up on the bed, confiding the secret quietly in case he could hear: “He’s not very smart.” I knew that.
At one point, she asked me if I like Japanese food.
“Oh, yes. I love it!”
”When I get better, you and me we’ll go for sushi, OK?”
”I’d be delighted, Carol.” As long as we leave Chito home.
I stayed for a few hours to give Sherlyn, her caregiver, time to go home, shower, take her boys to the park and enjoy a little freedom. Hospice calls it “respite care” for the family. Sherlyn was not actually related to Carol – she’d met her at a dinner party six months earlier, and adopted her into her life. She vowed to Carol that she’d help her through her cancer, and opened her heart to the woman she now called “Mama.” Since Carol had no children and no family nearby, she enjoyed being adopted by Sherlyn and her family. Sherlyn’s two young sons even called her “Grandma.” For Sherlyn, it was a way to assuage the old pain of not being present when her own mother was dying. Clearly, it was a win-win situation for them all.
I steeled myself for the second visit, vowing to lock Chito in the bathroom to quiet the barking. I was surprised to find him quietly resting under Carol’s bed for most of the visit, occasionally venturing out to sniff my hand and wait for a pat. I obliged, careful not to get him riled up lest he start barking again, and keeping my hand as far from his snapping mouth as possible. Carol was no longer communicative, and was now spending most of her time sleeping. No matter. I still strummed my guitar and stroked her hair, giving Sherlyn time with her sons. When she returned a few hours later, she was anxious to talk – about Carol, about dying, about life. I realized that the purpose for my visit was for Sherlyn this time.
“I’m not ready for her to go yet,” she confided. “And I don’t want to
be here when she actually passes.”
“Have you told her that?”
“She’s sleeping all the time now.”
“She can still hear you. Talk to her. And when you are ready to let her go, tell her that, too.”
“I’ll never be ready,” Sherlyn tearfully admitted. “But I don’t want
her to suffer, either.”
“You’re doing such big work here, Sherlyn. It’s huge. What a gift you’re giving her, the chance to be surrounded with love as she makes her transition.” I wanted her to know that it was no small thing, to open her heart in such a profound way.
I arrived for my third visit to a houseful of children (Sherlyn’s two boys plus four of their cousins), the television blaring insignificant nonsense. Chito, looking forlorn, lay under Carol’s bed, staying out of reach of all of the sticky fingers trying to grab him. The scene was chaotic, not exactly the kind of atmosphere of usually associated with terminal patients, but I knew Carol was enjoying the energy in whatever way she still could.
Even so, I was relieved when they all left. I turned off the television and took a few deep breaths. The drone of the oxygen machine was now in the forefront, white noise creating its hypnotic trance. Chito jumped up into my lap, needing some quiet love. Hard to believe this was the same animal.
Carol’s breaths were faint. I picked up my guitar and instinctively played more slowly and more quietly than I had before. I actually changed the key of a number of songs, using a capo way up on the guitar neck to make the guitar sound more like a harp.
At one point, I carried Chito over to the bed and placed him gently near her hand. He licked it for a moment or two and jumped off the bed. Carol responded ever so slightly, moving her fingers, sighing.
A few moments later, I noticed that she was no longer breathing. I took her hand and stroked it.
”Oh, Carol, please keep breathing,” I pleaded. Though I had worked with dozens of patients during my tenure with hospice, none had ever actually died on my watch. One part of me didn’t want it to happen; another part knew that if it did, it must have meant I was ready for the experience.
She took another few breaths, and then no more, no matter how much I wanted her to breathe again. The fragile thread of life, frail beyond my wildest expectation, broke in that moment. In that breath, her spirit rose up to leave that cancer-wracked body, and Chito and me, behind.
We sat for a few minutes in the silence, the oxygen machine still humming. Her body was still warm as I prayed that she find her way to the light, and asked her beloved Jesus to accompany on her journey.
I looked at the clock. It was only a few minutes after eleven. I’d only been there for about forty minutes. There was no doubt in my mind that Carol had waited for Sherlyn to leave the house before she left her body.
I called Sherlyn’s cell phone but there was no answer. I waited a few minutes and tried again. I called the hospice office to let them know that Carol was gone and asked the receptionist for Sherlyn’s home number. I got an answering machine and left a cryptic message, asking her to call me as soon as she got the message. Then I called my husband, Patrick, and asked him to check the cell phone number in the notebook on my desk. He could hear the sadness in my voice and offered to join me at Carol’s while we waited for Sherlyn. Patrick is also a hospice volunteer and I was grateful for the offer of his company.
I tried Sherlyn’s cell phone one more time, and thankfully, she answered. I told her that Carol had passed. Sherlyn arrived home a few minutes later, visibly shaken, anxious for details about the passing. I told her about Chito’s goodbye and how peacefully Carol had made her journey.
Patrick and I decided to wait for Sherlyn’s husband, Joseph, to come home. In the interim, Sherlyn showed us old photo albums of Carol as a young woman, as a seaman’s wife, visiting relatives in Japan, enjoying vacations, surrounded by her dogs (Chito was seventh in a long line of canines of every variety, her first Chihuahua), living her life. Time seemed suspended.
The door opened and Joseph walked in. He reached out for Sherlyn but Chito jumped into his arms instead. He buried his nose deep in Joseph’s neck, under his arm, anywhere he could hide his pain and feel secure. Joseph obliged, laughing softly in a comforting way.
“I always thought that when I got a dog, it would be a real dog. You know, a hunting dog. But I guess this one will do just fine.”
I wanted to tell him about how fierce Chito can be, and what a great watchdog he is. But seeing this bundle all snuggled up in Joseph’s arms made me realize that he was exactly what they all needed – a living, breathing, barking reminder of Carol, and the love they had all shared in that very special, sacred time.
© 2004 S. Kimmel
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