I wish I'd stayed home.
Working with older people has one down side: they get older. And they get sick. I was thrilled to hear one of them had just exited the hospital to recoup at home, which is always good news. Besides, he's the Bowling Coach and they have a fit when he's not around to offer good natured suggestions.
The first woman into my office came in to ask one question and quietly fell apart one emotional piece at a time. Picture if you can a woman in her mid 70s who has taken back under her wing the first husband she so adored... the one who cheated on her early in life and divorced her for another woman. Yes, younger. He came back into her life 2 years ago, in the early stages of senile dementia, because his family couldn't handle him. He had no place to go. She took him in. She cared for him. She is a kind woman but not a warm one...not the touchy feelie type who dispenses hugs with soup. She offers shelter and no nonsense care. He tried to care for her when she had back surgery this year but he was never sure how to do that. Then he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She's nursed him through treatments and doctor's visits utilizing only the Social Security money he has available to him. She pays all of their living expenses. I knew he was in the hospital but didn't know he'd had a mild stroke until she came in today to ask a question about a nursing home. They believe I'm an expert, not because I work with them, but because my aunt has had a stroke, is in a nursing home and I'm responsible for her care. I gave her more information than she probably absorbed, but it included the business card of a nurse who aids my group. She grasp it like a life preserver. Then she grasped me and I hugged her, this tiny little woman who shuns physical touch but who almost broke me in half trying to absorb some strength from me, one who she sees as fitter and stronger.
She left and the phone rang. The wife of one of my favorite couples was on the line. "That spot on the x-ray of his hip is cancer," she stated softly. I sighed, knowing this woman has had her hands full taking her mother to the doctor one day and her husband to the doctor for his back on alternate days. She added that he would begin chemo today and when I asked if that meant they couldn't operate, she got quiet. Too quiet. I waited, took a deep breath and asked what else had happened. "It's spread," she said slowly, as if trying to convince both of us. The answer to "how much" was "to his lungs and liver." Before I could stop myself, I said, "Shit!"
It was like hearing my Dad's prognosis all over again. He had cancer of the esophagus, which traveled to his lungs, then his liver. Three months after it took up residence in his liver, he was gone. I told her I thought the news sucked and she agreed. All she could say to anything I said was, "Can you believe this?"
"No," was my honest answer. I bit off the rest. The part where you think the nice guy gets hit with the wrong stuff. Where people launch into "Only the good die young." I'd learned my lesson about that the hard way. With Dad. Moments after his diagnosis, Dad had sighed, "Life...," to which I had added in shock, "is a bitch." Dad smiled wanly and added, "And then you die." It was like being smacked in the face with my own insensitivity. Life hands us surprises, not all of which are nice. I learned to phrase things better. If you over look today's sigh of "Shit!"
I told her I would let the others know. Seniors always want to know who is ill and how they can make it better. Prayer is usually their first answer, a second opinion is often their second. I did what I could to comfort her over the phone, then began to make calls for her, to spare her the misery of hearing the shock in people's voices, especially as she related for the umpteenth time the sad story. I hung up and cried like a baby for a couple of minutes. I saw Dad's face pass before mine but he was smiling. We had the same sense of humor, Dad and I. It was like an unspoken reminder that what helps the most at times like these is to know people care about you. Truly care. I picked up the phone and began to make calls.
Halfway through my list as I was about to tell the woman about our "sad news," she asked me, "You mean about Sam?" No, I'd replied. Sam had moved 2 months ago to N.C. to live with a son of questionable repute when it came to Sam's money and wanting to have it. "He died," she added nonchalantly, as if the shock hadn't registered with her yet either.
"Talked to him last week and he was fine," she added, as if telling me a story about a stranger instead of a man who'd been her friend for years. "The family doesn't want to talk, but the preacher said he thought it was kidney failure." I told her I was sorry but she said as miserable as Sam had been, he was probably better off.
What a lousy choice to make your day better.
On days like these you want to touch base with the one person who will understand even if you can't make it through the explanation. I finished my list. Then I called home. I can truly say that the sound of my husband's voice was like the reassuring hug that I needed. "You know it comes with the territory in your line of work," he added kindly at the end of the conversation.
"I know," I huffed, "but I got one home from the hospital, now one's terminal and another dead. It's a little much for not quite 10:30 in the morning."
That's when the lady in charge of Canasta charged into my office to tell me another thought she'd had about how I could do my job better. Her way. She has breast cancer and is finish chemo. The grumpy disposition came way before the cancer did. I wonder if she knows a bad attitude can slow down her recovery? I merely nodded and she left happy..well as happy as she ever gets. As I went to hang up, hubby reminded me that he loved me.
No matter what doctors say, it's the people who love you that can be the best medicine of all.