The days leading up to Elsa’s death were deeply troubling for her family. Starting in November last year it was the blood clots causing pain, swelling, fatigue and fear of anticipated repercussions. Numerous hospital visits didn’t seem to provide any real answers. Then, in December, she suffered a stroke that hospitalized her for what was thought to be a relatively short period of observation. The day she was to be released she suffered a heart attack, which resulted in the widespread cancer being found. There was no medical solution. The family listened, their tears falling onto the table in the ICU conference room as the oncologist sensitively described her terminal condition. Elsa’s wishes had been made clear in her Health Care Directive; there was to be no artificial extension of her life under the circumstances.
During the whole time of her hospitalization, including at the moment of her last breath, her room was filled with family. Children, grandchildren, and spouses of both, all cherished the opportunity to hold Elsa’s hand, praying, singing, whispering in her ear how much each of them loved her, and even laughing. While many patients in that ward lacked even a single visitor, hospital staff expressed astonishment as each day’s 24 hour family vigil lovingly continued. Despite the soul-searching challenges that always seem to arise in these moments, the bonding evidenced by Elsa’s family was the finest tribute possible to her life’s work as a wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and even mother-in-law. Everyone knew they were loved by her, and by each other family member. It was expressed not only in words but also when language could not express the sense of impending loss and grief. Not a single family member was outside the circle. No one was abandoned. The family had been bonded together by glue that had taken a lifetime to lovingly apply. To use the word picture of the Simon and Garfunkel 1970 hit, they together formed a “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”.
Some families on that same hospital floor appeared to be drowning in troubled waters rather than bonding. Take the woman, dressed in hospital gown and slippers, who literally chased her scruffy, glassy-eyed, smoke-saturated son on his speedy retreat through the lobby. His escape was hastened by her shouting, “Don’t ever come back here! I never want to see you again”, followed by other damning injunctions punctuated with expletives rarely heard in a hospital hallway. The true character of a family, or of individuals for that matter, seems to become evident in troubling times.
Sitting in that hospital room, reading her favorite Psalms to my mother-in-law as she waited to die, I felt a deep sense of sadness juxtaposed with an even deeper sense of peace and confidence. There was no unfinished business; no messages of love left undelivered. Her life’s testimony stood around her; a family bonded together.
There are many events in life, testing times when families either fall apart or pull together. Some members will feel lost, even locked in loneliness, while others will feel embraced and empowered. Elsa’s family members are definitely in the latter category.
These last few weeks have reminded me – I must continue to reinvest my “riches”, ensuring that I pass on the legacy so selflessly invested in me by my much-loved mother-in-law and others.