The Mansion Assisted Care facility called me this afternoon to tell me that Bill O., who left the Mansion two weeks ago for another nursing home – he needed more medical care – died last week. His death was peaceful. I know some of you are still sending him gifts and letters and cards, so I wanted to let you know.
Red and I went to see him a few days before he died, and the news was not a surprise for me. Bill seemed to be failing, he seemed to be letting go, disoriented at times. I know he very much appreciated the letters and messages some of you sent him, he kept them in the plastic bag (above), he read a couple to Red.
Bill lost his wife of 62 years last year, and he had to give his dog Duke to a shelter. The dog has been re-homed. Bill told me again and again – very proudly – how Duke used to fetch the morning paper for him, and how he accidentally taught him to do that. I had the sense he needed to tell some of the stories of his life.
Before he left, and when I last saw him, he apologized profusely for not finishing a book I had brought him that I had written. He said he just couldn't focus most of the time.
I have been doing hospice and dementia and assisted care therapy work for more than a decade now. I began working with Izzy and Lenore, and now Red.
I have learned some things about how to deal with loss and death, although it is never simple. It is not a tragedy or a drama to me, it is just as much a part of life as breathing. We all live, we all die. It unites all of us as human beings. Perhaps not surprisingly, I often make the most powerful connections with people at the edge of death.
They are acutely aware of life, and what is important. They feel things intensely.
Hospice work and therapy work have taught me much about mortality. I connected with Bill, he loved to tell me stories about his life as a cook and before that, as a farmer. He loved to touch Red, who did not want to stay too long with Bill in his last visits. He became restless after a few minutes.
I have come to recognize this as the dog sensing that the person we are visiting is fading, is falling away.
Soon after, that person often dies. It isn't that the dog is psychic, as some like to think, they don't even know what death is.
Rather, they respond to the attention and body language of the person they are seeing. When Red sees people like Connie, she is excited, looks him in the eye, talks to him. He'll sit there for an hour. Therapy dogs are trained to respond to that, or do it naturally. Bill couldn't do that.
As people near death, they gather themselves and withdraw, and lose interest in the dog, they begin to prepare. The dog reacts to this by turning away, I have learned to watch for it. Bill understood this, I think. He knew where he was.
In nursing homes and assisted care facilities, death is always the silent partner in the hallways and the rooms, the guest that is never invited but is always there.
The hardest part for me is when I show up with Red in a room, and there is suddenly no one in it. Volunteers are not the first people who are called or who should be called. It was nice of Marie at the Mansion to let me know.
In our culture, we hide the aging away from us, out of sight and consciousness. No one dies at home anymore, most of us never see it. Death is a taboo in our media and much of our culture. People who work with the aging know it well.
Death often seems a great and unnatural shock to people. Yet nothing could be more common or inevitable than death, and I am grateful to have seen it up close, time and again. I have learned not to run from the idea of it.
I did not know Bill as long or as well as some, but I loved hearing his stories and admired his grit. I loved his tales about the show goats he raised with his wife, "back in the day," as he put it. And of his cooking.
Bill lived a long and full life, he sensed he was near the end, and I was happy to hear he died peacefully. I think he had left enough behind and was done. He more or less said so.
This work has taught me much about life and death, and the challenging part is that almost everyone you get to know well ages, and then dies. It is something you have to accept, not something to grieve over every time. It is not an interruption in the work, it is the work. Any other response would make the work impossible. My work as a police reporter may have prepared me for this, I saw a lot of people die, and moved on before I got too used to it.
I wish Bill peace and compassion on his journey, wherever it takes him. I was pleased to get to know him, and enjoyed our talks. He was given loving and compassionate care. He loved much in his life, and that is why he missed so many things.
In places like the Mansion, however well run it is, people often feel disconnected from life, and when life comes into their world, it is magic. I thank you good people out there, your letters gave him a human connection he seemed to want and need. It made his last days brighter and more meaningful.
(you can write to the Mansion residents c/o The Mansion, 11 S. Union Street, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. The names of the residents who wish to receive mail are John Z., Bruce, John R., Dennis, Peggie, Barbara, Alanna, Connie, Helen, Christie, Aileen, John K., Carl, Allan, Joan, Madeline, Jean, Alice, Diane, Sylvie, Gerry, Mary, Jean A.)