The rag tag choir of angels

The tennis courts were glazed black with a recent rain. Water slicks reflected night time lights from the courts and the adjacent park. January trees with bare branches, made an intricate waistcoat over the large shapes of the tennis club buildings, the lawn bowling court and the broad, grassy half-block of park. A veil of elm branches high outside the fourth floor added a further layer. In shades of yellow and orange sodium, the light glistened and spread its delicate fingers along the watery asphalt.

It was peaceful. Beauty and melancholy. Especially at the caretaker’s door where an orange gold glow framed a dark fan shaped clump of trees that doubled in its reflection.

Behind me, lightly snoring, mother slept a morphine induced slumber punctuated by animal moans. Morphine was sinking the sharp pains and numbing the panic of dying.

I thought back to the odd events of this living wake. Beloved Mother, beloved of all, was dying a relatively peaceful death of an honourable ninety five years passage on this earth.

I reflected that we should have invested in the paper product industry. Residents who ate at her table both at lunch and dinner had come up to her room to say good bye, to hold her hand, to give her blessings, and to sit while comforting the family. They cried. Mom’s always ample supply of paper tissues were handed out like party favours to room full of teary women dabbing at their eyes. The boxes were emptying at a great rate. I made a mental note to bring in more tissues.

Mother could no longer leave her bed. The packing between her bones was so old that every movement ground bone on bone, despite the nerves transiting through and by them. It sent pain hurtling from the iliac to her metatarsals. She hurt so, and she no longer could be transferred to her commode. As her abilities to control her movements and her needs was robbed from her she used paper pants and paper wipes. Indignity. Indignity!

We needed paper to wipe her chin, to catch the water that was the only nourishment she could tolerate. We needed paper to wipe up spills as the room crowded with sincere well wishers. The rows and rows of full and half full drink options sent up for Mother’s meals and for visitors awaited her in vain, sitting on the top of her dresser drawers. With the incoming of another visitor or another chair an occasional drink would up-end and spill.

The daylight came on slowly with a morning mist drifting amongst the trees. It was eerie but beautiful. Out in the corridor, life resumed it’s hospital routine. Another tray arrived with a breakfast that mother could not eat – institutional eggs and toast with tiny containers of jam on the side; a bowl of cereal with a half cup of milk in an individually sealed container; a glass of orange juice, a coffee in a lidded cup; a glass of strawberry milkshake – the power drink variety. Someone on the kitchen crew was obviously trying to look after me. It was obviously too much for an elderly person.

I ate the eggs to sustain me, but everything was cold and unappetizing. I took to reflecting on the frustrations that we put in the way of the elderly:

As I fumbled with the jam containers, trying to get the little broken corner to lift, I thought how impossible it must have been for Mother to open these. First, she could barely see to find the right corner, then her arthritic fingers could not grasp the tiny point of foil, and then could not roll it back to get the jam inside. Proud as she was, she wouldn’t ask anyone to do it for her, but she had complained to me some time earlier and I made a request to the director that these arrive opened on her breakfast tray. The milk container was the same, a bit more difficult really, because there was no corner to find and the foil was tucked down around the rim with no obvious starting point. I put some in my coffee.

It was cold and I walked down to the microwave oven at the nursing station to warm it up. That too was something Mother could not have done for herself. She, who liked her coffee “hot, hot, hot” (I could just hear her saying it) had spent a year in this place with cold or lukewarm coffee.

Somehow the room had become horribly untidy (I have this special talent with housekeeping). I put back the desk chair that had been my footstool during the night, dragged the wing chair that I had slept in beside her bed, back towards the window, folded the blanket I had put over my lap. I arranged the crossword puzzle book and my notebook, repacked my voluminous carryall and sat again by her bed to hold Mother’s hand as I waited for Heather and Lizbet came to relieve my watch about ten.

It was around nine when they arrived. Not long afterwards, Ethel arrived in her wheelchair, feet paddling along, pulling along the corridor, one hand on the hip high hand railing. She was one of the younger residents, at sixty five, there because of kidney failure. She had been a robust and lively woman. A party girl, I thought. She had sung for several musicals in various theatrical groups around the city and she had a voice she could throw across an entire auditorium. She had been an elementary school teacher once upon a time. Now she was in dialysis four times a week and so weak that she could not be independent.

Then came Dorothy, an assertive woman, eyes full of concern. When I first met her, I said to myself, “Here is a matriarch of a wealthy family”. Though she was short in statuture, her assurance, her slightly commanding nature, her authority was imprinted on every cell of her body. She was a new resident and I could not get a read on her. She was far too competent, too cognitive. I hadn’t figured out her ailment. Or perhaps she simply did not want to “do” for herself anymore. She had told me that her advisors had informed her that she did not need to worry about money. “Just spend as you will” they had said, and no one had stopped her from spending so far. She was a member of the Tennis Club and the Royal Yacht Club. She taxied there almost daily to meet friends, and invariabaly had one meal or another while out. She did not have to rely on the Residence’s cuisine.

Then came Little Ethel. It was hard to keep these two Ethels separate in conversation when they were not there, but by calling the diminutive one “Little Ethel” everyone knew who we meant. She was not five feet tall, and like my mother, had lost her appetite for eating. When I gave her an occasional hug, I felt that I was holding a trembling sparrow in my hands, she was so light and frail. This one reminded me of my own grandmother – eyes full of mischief, motherly and kind. She might appear frail but she had a tall personality and a determination, a stubbornness that helped her bring love to every slow passing day.

Were there too many people in the room? I didn’t know any more. As Mother’s primary care giver, I needed to ensure that Mother’s best interests were looked after. Including Mom and I, there were seven people in this tiny 200 square foot room. Could she tolerate the activity or not? How could I tell? There were no rules to go by.

We chatted quietly for a while, updating everyone on Mother’s progress. Then the conversation fell and the eye dabbing Kleenexes were brought out again as a lull came over the group. “Shall we sing a hymn?” asked Heather.

My decisions on who should be there and who should not were set aside. What ever happened, happened. Everyone who know her had a right to say good-bye.
“A round!” Heather proposed decisively. We didn’t know it, so she sang in a clear voice

Be thou in peace, Be thou in peace/May the love of God surround you/Everywhere. Everywhere/ You may go.

On the second round, we all pitched in with the bits we could remember, tune and words still unfamiliar. It was pretty ragged. Ethel’s theatrical voice boomed above the others and was noticeable by its absence when she forgot the words or the tune.

“I’ll never be able to sing that hymn again without thinking of Mother,” said Lizbet, and we continued to sing, each member of the motley choir off key, faltering, faces contorting with the grief of loss and with thoughts – private thoughts about the sadness of parting, the finality of death and the pain of transition.

Then came a bit of rueful laughter, until we were all chuckling infectiously. After five rounds, the fifth not being any better than the second, and one attempt to harmonize, someone said “Aren’t there any other hymns that she knows?” So we sang, Jesus Loves Me. All things bright and beautiful.

“Children’s songs” said Dorothy, wonderingly. For comfort in death, there was nothing more soothing than songs that had been imprinted in childhood.

We’d forgotten the words. Tears hung in the corners of our eyes. We sang off key. I went to the keyboard and played a single line of the tune to establish the a key, a bell weather for our outrageous choir. Soon our dying mother was joining in. Lizbet was crying out,

“Wait. Wait. Slow down.Slow down. She is trying to sing with us but you are going too fast!”

We slowed the pace while mother’s fingers ghost-played the tune with her fingers on her bed sheet. She formed the words with her mouth but only a weak little tune came out and was instantly absorbed by our ragtag choir’s song, “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to take me home. Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home.”

Dear mother who had not spoken a coherent work all morning said raised her head and said, “Are we supposed to be doing this?” She was clear as a soprano. It stopped us all short.

Lizbet said she thought Mother meant we were disturbing the neighbours. I thought she was concerned about the appropriateness at this time of her pain and illness.

“We were singing to distract you from your pain, Mom We can’t give you more pain killers. You just have to hold on. Think of other things.” I spoke this loudly into the best of her two deaf ears.  Her hearing aid had been found, crushed, on the floor the previous day and now we really had to work at letting her hear what we needed to tell her.

We sang one more round of Swing Low and our friends went “home”.

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2 Responses to “The rag tag choir of angels”

  1. Marsha J. O'Brien Says:

    Bless your heart. Of course this absolutely brought tears to my eyes. You are a wonderful
    writer and a wonderful person. Didn’t think I would cry this morning when I woke up, but these were tears of sadness, joy, compassion, understanding and empathy. Love is so complex and so wonderful. It made me miss my little mama once again. Our elderly need so much – Thank you.

  2. suburbanlife Says:

    Just great, LFB! It is amazing that even in expensive respite homes the level of concern for how the infirm elderly cope with even the slightest of challenges, is not considered and applied with care and concern. I guess a warehouse is a warehouse no matter how it is dressed up and marketed, and often workers in these warehouses are numb and demoralized, not necessarily uncaring.

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