jmgoyder

wings and things

14. Death and dying

About a year ago, Anthony had a series of TIAs (mini-strokes) and was unconscious on and off for a few days. I panicked and began funeral arrangements but he ‘did a Lazarus’ and has been as okay as is possible since then. Recently – the last few days – I have noticed a marked deterioration and this afternoon I couldn’t wake him up and he looked deathly.

I am once again afraid even though I know that tomorrow he will probably be bright-eyed again like he was a week ago. On the other hand, I think I better go back to the funeral people and finish the arrangements just in case.

A friend of mine, whose husband has been in care for around the same time as Anthony (he had a massive stroke), has invited me to a seminar this week on death and dying so I’m going to go. I think it will help me to be more prepared mentally and emotionally. If Anthony were suffering constant pain or distress I would be wanting him to die, but he is so comfortable and uncomplaining that I can’t even imagine it.

It is so many years now that I have been trying to prepare myself for Anthony’s death – ever since the prostate cancer diagnosis when the urologist said he probably had 1-3 years to live (around eight years ago!) But then the Parkinson’s disease took precedence and has been by far the more debilitating of the two diseases.

The fact that Anthony is still such a huge part of my life on a daily basis (even when I don’t go in to the nursing home), the fact that I don’t find visiting him and being with him at all onerous, and the fact that we derive so much enjoyment from each other’s company, leaves me ill-prepared. It will not be a relief when he dies; it will be the most grief I have ever felt, and I’m not ready.

I don’t think Ming is ready either, although he just assured me that he is, well, sort of. He also assured me that he will come with me next time I make an appointment with the funeral directors. I think it’s about time we got back to the business side of Anthony’s death.

One of the things I should probably do is to figure out what to do with my ‘Anthony time’ once he is gone. Of course there is the book I’m writing and that will help, but the gap he will leave in our lives is going to be massive.

This feels like the peak of the anticipatory grief I have felt for so long that it’s like a second skin; this is the knife edge of the most terrible mixture of fear and love. But perhaps this isn’t the end after all and tomorrow Anthony will look at me, smile his slow smile and repeat what he said the other day: “You’re still beautiful, Jules.”

 

 

 

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13. Bittersweet

In recent weeks, Anthony is either in bed or in a broda-chair (armchair on wheels). It is a long time since he has been able to walk or sit in a regular wheelchair and, although he is able to weight bear to an extent sometimes, he is more or less bedridden now. I am becoming used to what is still a bit of a shock.

Yesterday, I visited in the late afternoon (something that I had intended to do more regularly – famous last words). He was in bed, looking very comfortable and content. I fed him his vitamised dinner which he gobbled, and some chocolate that I had brought with me. At one point he raised his hands underneath the blanket and they kept getting in the way of the spoon.

Me: Why are you doing that with your hands, Ants?

Anthony: Because I lost them five days ago.

Me: Oh! When did you find them again?

Anthony: Last night.

Me: Where were they?

Anthony: At the nun’s place.

Me: You mean Sister R?

Anthony: Yes.

Me: She’s amazing isn’t she.

Anthony: Wonderful.

We aren’t Catholic but we do have a very good friend who is a nun and she has blessed Anthony on several occasions over the years, so I put two and two together. The way Anthony’s memory works now fascinates me; it is fragmented and peculiar but sometimes wonderfully symbolic.

At around 6pm, he began to drift into sleep and, as I stroked his head, I felt a lurch of bittersweet emotion. I whispered goodbye and kissed him, thinking he was asleep.

Me: You are the most beautiful man in the world, Ants.

Anthony (murmuring): I know.

 

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Our TEDx talk

Here is the link to the talk Ming and I gave the other day at Bunbury’s TEDx event.

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12. The proposal

Anthony was in good spirits and wide awake this afternoon. I had Pip (our miniature schnauzer) with me, so I plonked her onto the bed next to Ants and we all watched a cooking show on the television.

When it came time to leave, Anthony was quite happy for me to go as he thought I was going to work. This was such a relief because yesterday he got cross with Ming for not bringing him home, so I was a little apprehensive about today.

I am so used to seeing Anthony’s blank or sleepy facial expressions (due to the Parkinson’s Disease effect on his facial muscles), that when he does smile it is like some sort of miracle. He was so alert and responsive as I was leaving that I wanted to steal our goodbye kiss/hug and bring it home.

Anthony: Let’s get married, Jules!

Me: We are married, Ants!

Anthony: Yes, but not officially. We should get married as soon as possible.

Me: But we are married! Remember how Tony [my priest friend] came down and married us?

Anthony: That’s right – just the other day. You mean last week?

Me: Yes.

Anthony: So what do you say?

Me: What?

Anthony: Let’s get married, Jules.

Me: Oh! Okay – yes!

I am not quite sure why the excitement in Anthony’s 81-year-old voice, sounding so much younger in that simple proposal, has affected me so much this evening. It’s as if we are in one of those time loop situations.

 

 

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11. Lightning visits

During my bout with mycoplasma pneumonia, I wasn’t able to visit Anthony for about a month, if I include the week before and after hospitalisation.

Ming and my mother, Meg, visited him almost daily and that way I could speak to him on the phone, tell him (in my usual dramatic way) that I was terribly sick and in hospital and that’s why I wasn’t there with him. All these weeks later, now that I am well again, Ants still remembers my absence and continues to ask me if I am okay. A couple of the carers at the nursing home said that he behaved differently during this time, that he was uneasy I guess. I think that maybe the way he was missing me was quite visceral, rather than cognitive but I don’t know.

Now that I am pacing myself better, and looking after my health with lots of green juice, homemade dahl, and sourdough, I’ve allowed myself to do what I call ‘the lightning visit’ –  a visit lasting a few minutes rather than a few hours.

The lightning visit idea allows you to visit your loved one fleetingly, but memorably. I might spend most of an afternoon, holding Anthony’s hand, watching his favourite comedy, whispering sweet nothings into his ear, and the next day he will say, “Where have you been for so long?”

On the other hand, whenever I am on the fly and in a rush, Ants remembers my visit – the rush of it, the urgency of me having to be somewhere else. Sometimes that ‘somewhere else’ is a volunteer commitment, a get-together with friends, a dentist’s appointment, but sometimes this is my excuse to go home.

The other day, when I was leaving Anthony after a lightning visit, I apologised to him and he said, “Don’t be sorry, Jules. You are so sweet.”

Okay so I am not particularly fond of the word ‘sweet’ because it’s just too sweet, but it reminded me of when Anthony was wrestling with the idea of us getting married. He was so worried about our 23-year age difference and kept saying that I was too sweet.

I remember that moment vividly.

Lightning

 

 

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Doing it

I bumped into some relatives today at our local, rural, shop and they said they had intended to go and see Anthony today, but it was too late in the day. It was raining relentlessly so I admitted that I, too, hadn’t gone into town to see Anthony but that Ming was doing it.

Doing it?

Why did I describe my visits to Anthony as a job that needed to be done? Why didn’t I say, “Ming is visiting Ants today”? instead of “Ming is doing it today.”

I am so embarrassed that I expressed myself this way because for all of these years I have felt and believed that the romantic love I share with Anthony would somehow sustain us. In fact, as Ming often points out, Anthony is now mostly lost in his world of Parkinson’s Disease Dementia. Yesterday, for example, Anthony was mostly asleep during my 2-hour visit and this is often the case.

Perhaps love is not simply a feeling but also a decision. For me, this realisation has made all the difference recently because in deciding to love someone, that ‘do it’ decision, is an absolute in the face of multiple contingencies.

Do it.

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“A person with dementia is not a person who is dead and gone.”

This was the sentence that I began, and ended, our TEDx talk with last week. Like the other speakers, Ming and I only had 15 minutes to deliver this talk which was a challenge as I had written this massive missive of around 20 pages! Thankfully Ming convinced me to turn this into a cue card presentation and we practised it in a hallway before the event began.

It is extremely difficult to talk about Dementia because everyone has a different story of what it’s like (for both the person with the disease and the carers). Ming and I now have a disclaimer that admits our luck in that Anthony’s personality hasn’t changed and that this is one of the many reasons we still find joy in our interactions. We acknowledge that other people, coping with the multi-faceted aspects of Dementia, may be in hellish situations.

I am so glad that Ming and I had the opportunity to talk about our own situation. Anthony is immobile now, his previously loud voice a whisper, and mostly he doesn’t know who Ming is. But he is still alive, free of pain, accepting and full of love for me; it’s a beautiful thing.

If I can influence just a single person to visit their spouse, parent, friend, I will feel I’ve made a slight difference. There are so many thousands of people with Dementia in nursing homes who never have contact with loved ones; these people are, quite possibly, the loneliest people in the world.

A person with dementia is not a person who is dead. And nobody is ever, ever, gone.

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10. Dementia Context

Yesterday afternoon, when I visited Anthony in the nursing home, he was in bed. He’d been showered and had been up in the broda-chair (armchair-on-wheels) all morning and was tired.

I positioned my chair so that my face was close to his and this was our conversation:

Anthony: I was so depressed yesterday, Jules.

Me: Why? What happened?

Anthony: Well, I went down to Bridgetown to help out but all the farms are in disarray.

Me: So did you manage to fix some of the problems?

Anthony: Only some.

Me: I can ring Fred if you like, or Simon? Just to make sure?

Anthony: Good idea.

Me: So are you still depressed?

Anthony: A bit.

Me: So what can I do? I’ve rung the guys and they are fixing everything right now! It will all be okay, Ants – I promise.

Anthony: Beautiful.

Me: What is beautiful?

Anthony: You.

Dementia doesn’t equal death. People like Anthony can survive for many years with Dementia, either at home, or in care.

I feel so passionate about raising awareness that people with Dementia, even if they don’t know who you are anymore, cognitively, still appreciate a conversation, a hug, and, most importantly, your presence in their lives.

To begin with, nearly six years ago, I could hardly bear my visits to Ants because of how heartbreaking they were. He wanted to come home and I wanted him to come home and, yes, we tried this over and over again but his Parkinson’s Disease won. Once he couldn’t walk that was it and I had to get the wheelchair taxi to come and get him and take him back to the nursing home. I felt as if I had abandoned my soul one Christmas when this scenario played out in my mother’s driveway in the midst of our family get-together.

Context: Anthony was/IS a dairy farmer.

He has never lived in Bridgetown.

 

 

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9. “You seem like a very nice bloke.”

Ming visited Anthony yesterday and once again wasn’t recognised. I am so proud of the way Ming is handling this. Instead of feeling hurt and upset, Ming just goes with the flow and has fun with Anthony anyway.

Ming: Do you know who I am?

Anthony: Well, you seem like a very nice bloke.

Ming: Yes, Dad, but do you know WHO I AM?

Anthony: Aren’t you the hairdresser?

Ming: No – I’m your son – I’M MING, DAD!

Anthony: Yes, that’s right.

Ming has the same booming voice that Anthony used to have. He also has a similar gait and the other day as he suddenly appeared in my view through the front window, I thought for a split-second that it was Anthony. The nostalgia was unsettling, but also quite pleasant. He loves the stories I tell him about how Anthony used to be before and just after Ming was born. These stories have helped Ming to cope with Anthony’s ill health over the years, especially lately. Ming has very few childhood memories of having a father who was robust, gregarious, the loud, life-of-the-party, generous host because he was a one-year-old when Anthony suffered his first cancer – kidney cancer.

One of the most wonderful things for me is to see so many of Anthony’s qualities embodied in this larger-than-life son of ours. Ming is full of humour and a kind of boisterous grace. To hear him tell me about how fantastic his visit to Anthony was yesterday is like a gift.

Two very nice blokes.

 

 

 

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7. “When do you get your soul back again?”

[As I prepare for the talk Ming and I will deliver at TEDx in Bunbury, I wrestle with challenge of being concise when I could talk forever about our experience with Dementia: Anthony’s unawareness that he has Dementia; Ming’s transition from anger to acceptance; and my own attempts to find and create meaning in our interactions. I want this 15 minutes to somehow make a difference in the way people in general respond to people with Dementia. Once again, the following is a draft of a chapter for the book, Dementia Dialogues and any feedback appreciated.]

7. “When do you get your soul back again?”

It was a few months ago and I was already attuned to our cross-purpose-ish conversations, where, for example, Anthony would mention a tractor and I would counter his tractor-anxiety with an exclamation about how sweet potato was in season again.

So, as I switched the television station from Dr Phil to the ABC news, Anthony did the exact same thing with our conversation:

Anthony: When do you get your soul back again?

Me: WHAAAAT?

Anthony: Your soul.

ME: But I haven’t lost my soul, Ants!

Anthony: That’s good.

Anthony is the least spiritual person I have ever known so his mention of my soul was disconcerting as I’m pretty sure I have a reasonably healthy one. Nevertheless it made me realise that inside the mind of a person with Dementia are all sorts of references to all sorts of triggers, both past and present. His mention of soul may have been a bit like me telling him that the power was out at the nursing home one day, i.e. there was no electricity. Hours later, we had this conversation:

Me: Are you angry with me, Ants?

Anthony: Of course not.

Me: Then why do you look so sad?”

Anthony: My power is out.

So maybe Anthony’s casual reference to my soul, as if it were something I’d temporarily misplaced, like a bangle or a scarf (which I lose all the time), was just him using one word, ‘soul’ for another, more tangible thing? After all, I don’t even know what a soul is!

Nevertheless, that soul conversation still resonates, still makes me wonder, and still compels me to keep on trying to continue these dialogues. Sometimes, when Ants is too sleepy, or confused, to answer my ‘yes or no’ questions, and he tries to tell me something that I can’t understand, I just say this:

Me: It’s okay, Ants. I can read your mind!

https://tedxbunbury.org/

 

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