Once upon a time there was a man named Alf who was dying. Again. He was dying before, a few times…at least that’s what the doctors said. But it turned out they were mistaken and he wasn’t dying at all. He was just living faintly from time to time.
Alf had lived with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure for twelve, long years and, somewhere in the middle of all that illness and decline, his heart got bored and figured out it could trick people into thinking he was dying. His heart enjoyed tricking people. It was like a coyote it was so tricky. It liked to make the doctors think This is it! so they would then tell everyone else, including Alf, the news. And that was when it would surprise them all by coming back strong and not dying after all. It made his heart look like a hero.
That’s how I first met Alf. His heart was at it again and, in spite of all the times it had tricked them in the past, everyone was certain this time was different. So, as often happens when someone’s illness is declared terminal, hospice was called into the case.
I came into their lives as a home health aide and I spent hours and hours every week helping Alf and his wife, Mrs. Alf, with things like, oh…showers and transfers and household chores. There was always cooking and cleaning and errands to do. Help with personal hygiene and bathroom support. I was the supply inventory-er and medication monitor as well as a critical all-around liaison with the rest of the hospice team and a jack of all trades for sure and certain. In fact, so indispensable was I that they paid me an extortionate wage well down into the single digits, a sum that made me the envy of nobody in particular and the wonder of all those who knew how much I’d paid for my college education.
But I digress.
I worked with Alf for close to two years before everyone finally wised up and realized he wasn’t dying this time either. But what a two-years it was! We had a ball, Alf and I, and he taught me lots of wonderful things. For instance, being a great one with his hands, we spent many happy hours together building bird houses which is when he taught me how to use a table saw.
Now if you’ve never seen a wobbling, wheelchair bound, mule-stubborn, ninety-three year old man who can barely pull himself upright to begin with, lean unsteadily on his elbows while using his bare hands to guide a tiny piece of wood past a twelve inch diameter, hot steel, spitting saw blade, then you just haven’t lived my friend. Everything always turned out okay (miracle!) but each time afterwards I had visions of flying fingers and blood splatter dancing in my head.
We also had a grand adventure at the local, home improvement warehouse where Alf wanted to race an electric shopping cart up and down the aisles at top speed. He never got full control of the thing but he wasn’t a man to let a detail like that stop him–at least not as long as the other customers were willing to keep diving out of the way and store employees hadn’t figured out yet who was running into the shelves. No sirree Bob. Alf was beyond such mundane considerations. Alf was magnificent. Dirty looks and mumbled expletives weren’t nearly enough to dampen his wild elation at finally getting behind the wheel of something with a motor again.
All in all we had a great run.
But eventually, everyone figured out he wasn’t dying this time either and the gig was up. He was discharged from hospice and without the benefit of a daily schedule to throw us together, he and I slowly drifted apart. I heard bits and pieces over the next couple of years about how he declined to the point where they finally had to put him in a nursing home, about how he just lay there curled up and incapacitated, unable to feed or dress or toilet himself anymore. I couldn’t help but wonder why his heart wouldn’t just buck up and surrender like the rest of his body. I shook my head at its foolishness. Sometimes, being trickier than tricky can really work against you.
But the day finally came when Alf turned the tables on his heart. He died peacefully in his sleep while it was off dozing, slipping out before it had a chance to wake up fully and figure out what was going on. His family was bewildered at first by the strange turn of events and understandably wary, which could be why they decided to have an open casket at the service
Just in case.
Alf’s was my first ever viewing. I walked up to the front of the funeral parlor to look at him as soon as I arrived and, between you and me, I was feeling guilty as all hell because I hadn’t been to visit him in so long. But the minute I saw him lying there in his Sunday suit, looking trim and dapper as ever, I felt better. He was okay now, finally free of his tricky heart, and in the end that’s all that really mattered.
I leaned over the side of the casket to whisper an apology in his ear while at the same time laying my hand every-so-gently on his chest, but then nearly jerked it off again upon discovering he was ice cold and hard as a freaking rock. The sensation startled me. It felt like a frozen rack of ribs slipped into a coat and tie. It took me a minute to get my head wrapped around the practical details of what’s required to keep a dead body looking fresh and presentable, and then promptly forgot all about it as I returned to bidding him a fond farewell, the best of luck, and a heartfelt wish for grace and fun on his journey to wherever he was headed next.
Thanks for everything, Alf. Really. It was an honor.
I made my way to a seat in the back row, took my place between our hospice’s Social Worker and Nurse, folded my hands primly in my lap, and settled in to try and behave myself during the service.
And that was when the Fly showed up.
Once again, this post has gotten a little too long (windbag?) and I’m gonna have to finish up next week. Stay tuned.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn
Hi Dia, this is Blast from the Past Kenny Hassman. I just got connected to Cal who, like me, just recently popped up on Facebook. Then I decided to do a search for you. You are the second Dia I have ever known except the other one is Dea (short for Dearmond). You are a marvelous writer. You really have a wonderful style. Which is not surprising from what I remember. Are you still a hospice working person? During the past couple of decades (plus a couple of years in my mom’s case) I have taken care of my mom full-time for the last month of her life and lived with and taken care of my two very very very ancient aunts back in NYC for two years while they were both dying. In all cases it was an honor to be able to do this. My mom’s was worse as she died one of those horrible torturous cancer deaths from smoking and she was 61 (I’ve now, at age 62, outlived both my parents ages when they each died). These experiences of taking care of these three people in their closing moments has often had me thinking of doing hospice work or just volunteering at a hospice. Presently I am, and have been for about ten years, taking care of my bipolar brother but he is not dying anytime soon that I know of. I hope that posting this publicly is not too embarrassing but there was no personal e-mail link to you. If you do actually ever get to read this and would like to write me back, which I hope you do, please use kennyhassman AT yahoo DOT com.
Dia, you have a lovely way of humanizing serious topics with wit. A lovely turn of the phrase.
Thanks. Dying is such a difficult subject for most people to talk about (deer in the headlights anyone?) And yet, strangely enough, it does have a funny, beautiful, luminous side, too. I frequently saw both the quirkiest and most inspiring side of humanity during my years with hospice. I’m so glad you stopped by.