I have so much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. Like many who cherish grandchildren, I’m looking forward to spending the holiday with them. But this holiday, my whole family has the gift of a good death given to our parents/grandparents/great grandparents by the remarkable caregivers at Hospice of the Berkshires.
Losing a father and a mother in the space of six days might sound like a tragic happening. However, thanks to the quality of care given to 89-year-old Ella and 92-year-old James, what could have been traumatic was a loving celebration of life and a long-lasting love that endured for 66 years.
One of my fondest memories of them in their last days was of them singing along with the guitar-playing of hospice chaplain Rich Hayes. We were in the living room, my Dad in his wheelchair and Mom perched beside him, and the words of "Don’t Fence Me In’’ were filling the room in a joyful chorus. Their normally frail and faint voices were loud, clear and almost robust.
"We want more," my normally demure mother demanded, so Rich obliged with World War II vintage songs, and even pleasing my dad with the iconic "Sweet Baby James." That brought back golden and blue memories to me of us sitting on the lawn at Tanglewood hearing the familiar words echoing out across Stockbridge Bowl. I was a young mother then and Dad a new grandfather, but at that moment the many years in between vanished. The songs were not just bringing back old memories but etching an in delible new one.
There were others giving gifts to them as a couple and to us as a family. Nurse Jean Guerin spent hours with Dad listening to him describe in detail every one of his cherished oil paintings. Jean took the time to transcribe his words into an album that she made for him. That album, complete with photos carefully mounted for display, was a centerpiece on the coffee table for some weeks. Mom and Dad showed it off with pride and the knowledge that Jean had created an heirloom for the family.
Toward the end, when breathing was especially hard for Dad in particular, it was Margaret Gubbins who came armed with strength and love to fortify him. She came with medicines to ease pain but what I witnessed was her grabbing his hands and pulling him up to her eye level and saying, "What wonderful clear eyes you have Jim." She was addressing him as a competent and alert, if frail and suffering, adult. I listened and watched in awe as the rapport she created in just several words had the effect of honoring an elderly man trying hard to face the end of a good life with clarity. She gave him that and she gave some of that to me just witnessing the way she used her considerable gifts.
So this Thanksgiving, my sister Mary Beth and I are comforted by memories created by so many of the hospice health care workers and professionals. We are so grateful for your gifts of living and profound care to our parents, James and Ella, and on behalf of them we thank you. What you did for them and for us endures.