My mother is 95, a lovely woman whose passion in life was to care for others. Even in her late eighties, she was volunteering at a nursing home, fundraising for various causes, and attending groups at her church. She was living in her own home until six weeks ago, when she had a terrible fall while getting out of bed. She broke her left collarbone and hip, as well as suffering a collapsed lung and a head injury. The acute injuries have now been treated, and she’s been transferred from the intensive care unit to a ward in an older part of the hospital where elderly patients await transfer to a nursing home.
She’s eating very little, and has been slowly but steadily declining in strength. She’s fully prepared to leave on her last journey, and I don’t think it will be too long now. So every day I come and sit with her, for as many hours as I can. She’s in a room with three other people, all elderly and bedridden. Her bed is by the window, although there’s no view but the walls and roof of the adjoining section of the hospital.
It’s a strangely intimate environment. If someone is in pain, the others are aware of the soft groaning or muffled sobs. At night you can hear the snoring of those who have fallen asleep as well as the tossing and turning of the sleepless. Bodily functions become obvious by the nurse bearing a bedpan, or by the emanation of smells that permeate the small room. The doctors come to the bedside and discuss the most intimate medical details, with the only privacy a flimsy curtain.
Visitors come and go, and soon we get to know each other. The daughter of one of the patients in the room is about my age, and we exchange information that we’ve gleaned about the ward. She tells me about the tiny kitchenette where can I go to make a cup of tea, and I explain the various roles of the staff who bustle in and out of the room. We gossip about the nurses and physiotherapists, praising some and complaining about others. Mostly, we exchange stories about the elderly parent we are now caring for, wanting to keep the images alive of the vital, loving people they were.
When I leave the ward in the evening, I know that the other patients and their families will be watching out for my mother. She’s fairly clear in her mind, but at night she can get confused and is unable to remember how to use the call bell. The woman in the bed next to my Mom says to me, “Don’t worry about your mother in the night. If she needs something, I’ll press the call button for the nurse.”
And so life in this little world continues, with its pains and sorrows but also with tenderness and love. The thread of human connection that links us to each other seems even more precious in this fragile land of the sick.