Friday, February 3, 2012

A Gentle Landing Place

65 years. We've been married 65 years.

I take a seat in the chair next to the bed and wait quietly. The nursing home is strangely inactive so early in the morning. The sun has begun to rise and light washes over the grassy prairie outside the window.

An elderly man is sitting in the recliner beside me. He leans over to hold his wife's frail hand. She lays unconsciously next to us. As I imbibe the scene, it becomes rapidly apparent that I have little to offer as a physician. My stethoscope is impotent, my medical knowledge is transparently thin.

I stand and begin my physical examination. Not out of medical necessity, but more for the husband's comfort. There is something about the familiarity of the laying of hands that brings calm and control to an ungraspable situation.

The woman in the bed is almost lifeless. Her pulse is thready and her respirations labored. She does not respond to my voice or touch. When I finish, I stand motionlessly. My presence may be the only poultice I have to offer.

She hasn't really been herself the last few years.

Such a benign statement to describe the utter destruction of dementia. First, her short term memory flew away like a bird migrating for winter that never comes back. But she was smart enough to compensate for that. Eventually the forgetfulness metastasized to names and faces. Old acquaintances became mocking strangers.

With the passage of time, such life defining tasks as eating and bathing became unmanageable. A woman of stature and bearing was now childlike and innocent. The transition was made from husband to caretaker to babysitter.

The only respite lounged in a past littered with old photographs. They held tightly to memories of vacations and hobbies. Life as it was before the unrelenting cruelty of senescence dealt its mortal blow.

We were waiting for death.

Not the cruel arrogant taker of souls, but more the soft gentle landing place for the addled mind.

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