When I gave the receptionist at the front desk my name she asked, “Are you the neighbor?”
“Yes,” I said with a little laugh. I got the same question from the hospice nurse when I walked into my friend Glo’s room just a minute later. The nurse was getting her settled into what will be her last caregiving facility. It was a moment filled with poignancy.
I went to Glo’s bedside and took her hand. She opened her eyes and sized me up behind my glasses and mask and said, “Oh sug (short for sugar) I don’t feel like talking.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m just going to sit here with you.”
She drifted back to a fitful sleep. She was unsettled which I expected after being moved suddenly from one facility to another. Glo has not been able to live in her home since December when her health deteriorated rapidly after her husband died. I cried big crocodile tears the day their house next to mine sold.
There’ve been many hard days for her and her sons. I’ve watched and helped as much as they’ve wanted/needed and struggled with some of the same questions they have about all of it. Glo is not the easiest patient and sometimes she’s not nice to the people she’s closest too. I somehow seem to sidestep her moods which is probably because I’m not her daughter—I’m the neighbor and sometimes we’re nicer to our neighbors than our family.
From the start of I’ve considered this a privilege. Minus the emotional baggage you can have in a family, I’m able to love Glo unconditionally. I don’t take it personally when she says she doesn’t want to talk. She’s not rejecting me she just doesn’t like her situation and I don’t blame her.
Walking through this experience with her I’ve discovered there’s a fantasy people have. Many seem to believe that once hospice care is involved people are made completely comfortable and just drift off to the other side of eternity. That probably happens in many cases, but not all and that is not Glo’s experience. She is suffering even with palliative care and it’s hard to watch.
This is why I insist on staying because I know that while one minute she doesn’t want me there, the next she will be clinging to my hand asking me not to leave. At other times her eyes will open wide and she’ll announce she’s scared and this is usually followed by the why is this taking so long question. She’s been ready to die for quite some time but her body just hasn’t quit and, “dammit,” she wants to know why. She’s also asked me more than once why God is allowing it to go this way. That question is the hardest.
In the Spring I would meet it with what now feels like a very trite response. “I don’t know but I know God has a plan for all of our lives and I think you’re still fulfilling yours.” This didn’t go over poorly. Glo still felt like she had some agency and that her life mattered so it worked. Now bedridden, delirious at times, and all but skin and bones she doesn’t feel that way.
Now her questions take on a different dimension and while they’re hard to hear they’re teaching me that big loaded questions aren’t actually meant to be answered. Glo isn’t looking for an explanation for her suffering she just needs someone to bear witness to it.
It’s not easy. When she looks at me with her pleading eyes, I desperately WANT TO SAY SOMETHING but don’t. Instead I give her the warmest masked-face-smile I can hoping LOVE is enough in the moment. Somehow contrary to my fix-it personality it seems to be.
Glo has always called me, “Sugar” which now seems perfectly fitting for what the end of her life is teaching me. As a baker I know the value of sugar but all too often I’m so busy creating, I forget you can be your neighbor’s cup of sugar without baking a thing. You just have to show up—be present. At times words are indeed like honey, but sometimes they just make a sticky mess of things. It’s best to be still and trust the Holy Spirit is ministering through you in spite of yourself.
Gloria Jean, I love.