Visiting Mary in her trailer
I was called to help a woman who had just entered into hospice care the week before. Her name was Mary Ann, and she was suffering and dying from liver failure. She had a long history of substance abuse, and then some recovery time, but she was 54 years old and her body was breaking down. She was confined to a hospice bed in her trailer since both her feet and hands were wrapped up in gauze. She had gangrene in all of her limbs.
She was only one year older than me and I felt that knee jerk reaction in me that wanted to believe somehow that even though she and I were so close in age, I was different. I was healthy. I was perhaps further from death.
As I watched this all arise in me, I also noticed that I wanted to be very close to her. I wanted to touch her face and lovingly rub her head and neck. I wanted to press on acupressure points along her collar bone to help her breathing which I could hear was so labored. I wanted to crawl into bed with her and cradle her, so that she would be less afraid. I wanted to feel connected to her as she was leaving this life, and her body.
I am reminded of Marie de Hennezel’s exquisite description of touch in “Intimate Death”. “Sometimes there is no substitute for the touch of a hand. It embodies the sense of true meaning. This contact of essence to essence is something that must be risked, essayed, lived.”
This is something I often wish that all caregivers realized. We are all too scared to risk intimacy.
At one of my visits with Mary Ann, I was seated beside her and quite suddenly, she began to gag and struggle to breath. Her niece, Becky, who was her primary caregiver, quickly came to her side with a basin. Mary Ann had been experiencing strong nausea with some vomiting that morning due to a medication change that was too hard on her stomach. For now, it was only the dry heaving that remained, and when it passed, she rested her head back on the pillow. Tears were running down her cheeks, and when she looked at me, her eyes held so much anguish and despair. I reached out and touched her face, and we just sat and looked into each others eyes for what felt like a long time. I tucked her damp, sweat- soaked hair behind her ears, so that her face could be free. It was then, her features softened and a soft smile appeared. My heart was so full of caring for this woman.
I fear that when I am dying I will no longer recognize my feelings. I fear that I will somehow be unable to communicate as I have throughout my life. What is becoming undeniable to me, however, is that other capacities begin to emerge as we near death and these traits hold tremendous expression.
Due to the illness and the strong medications Mary Ann was on, she was unable to speak, but as I sat there holding her gaze that day, I felt such a richness in her presence. There was such a vitality she was sharing with me. I was moved.
I wept in my car before I left the trailer park. I had so much grief in my own chest for her suffering. And yet a gladness in my heart for the lovely meaningful connection we shared.
Note: the names have been changed to protect people's privacy
By Gwen LoVetere, Licensed Acupuncturist with Providence Hospice and owner of Invisible Grace Acupuncture