My mother-in-law, Anne Driedger, died in the palliative care room at the Mennonite Home in Leamington, Ontario. It was such a comfortable, peaceful place for us to walk with Mom through the last 72 hours of her life. Soft music played in the background and big sunny windows let the ‘outside in’. There was a long leather couch with pillows and an afghan. Both ends of the couch reclined and the room also had an additional reclining chair, so family members could pass the nights in relative ease as they kept vigil. Appropriate reading material had been provided and the staff kept hot tea and coffee, water, juice and pop in constant supply for us. A gathering room right across the hall was the site for family meals and snacks brought in by relatives or delivered from local eating establishments. One night the nursing home staff even made sandwiches for us. We had family photo albums in the room and looked through them, reminiscing about happy times from the past.
As Mom made her end of life journey, from Tuesday morning to Friday morning, a continuous stream of family and friends filled her room. Her children were there almost all the time, and her grandchildren popped in, on their way to and from work–Hannah in her paramedics uniform, Rachel just finished her shift at the greenhouse, Tim, leaving his accounting office early, so he could stop to pick up his son Bryson from school, and bring him to see Oma before hockey practice, Michael in his city maintenance crew bright orange blazer and hard hat. Stephanie, Michael’s wife, rocked her baby daughter Chloe to sleep in the room, and Oma’s great-granddaughter Isabella sang Oma nursery rhymes and laid a flower she had picked for her on her pillow. Her great-grandson Nash engaged anyone in the room who was interested, in his own version of the card game Go Fish, complete with rules that guaranteed his victory. One or two of us were almost always holding Mom’s hands, talking to her, or rubbing her feet– because we knew she loved that. Her sons and grandsons discussed the ALCS baseball finals around her bed. The family’s favorite team, the Detroit Tigers, were in the play-offs. It is exactly what she would have expected from her ‘baseball- crazy’ family. Before she lost consciousness every one of her grandchildren had phoned her from various places in Canada, to say good-bye and to tell her how much they loved her. Her granddaughter Olivia, who inherited her grandmother’s baking expertise and is a chef at the Fairmont Hotel in Banff, told Oma she was baking pies. “Save a piece for me”, Oma said.
We sang Mom and Dad’s favorite hymns, and told Mom we loved her many times. We cried and our tears sometimes dripped onto her blankets. Her friends visited briefly, long enough to give her a kiss and tell her what a good friend she had been to them. Her sister and sisters-in-law came too, to take her hand, gently touch her forehead, and tell her how much she had meant to them. The nurses and health care aides, were infinitely polite about not interfering with family moments, and consulting and informing us about Mom’s care. After adjusting her nightgown, giving her an injection, swabbing her mouth with cool water, or changing her bedding, they whispered words of affection and encouragement to her.
The Mennonite Home chaplain paid a visit as did Mom and Dad’s church pastor, who read her favorite passage of Scripture, Psalm 121 which begins with the words,” I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” Members of the Mennonite Home office staff came to sing the German and English hymns Mom loved to her. The pastor, the chaplain, and our 90-year-old Dad, who is a retired pastor and chaplain, prayed with us and Mom.
Brenda, the personal care director at the home, came by many times, to encourage us, answer our questions and give us helpful advice. She was with us at Mom’s bedside, providing guidance, support, and quiet coaching during the moments when Mom opened her eyes wide and took her final breath. Linda, the nursing home administrator, also stopped by frequently to let us know her staff was ready and willing to be of assistance in any way they could. Linda arranged for a special service at the nursing home the morning of Mom’s funeral, so her friends there could say good-bye to her as well.
The Mennonite Home has a meaningful ritual after a resident has died. Women from the home’s auxiliary have made an exquisite quilt with a cross, a dove and a sheaf of wheat in its center– the wheat symbolizing the rural farm background of many of the nursing home residents, the cross their Christian faith, and the dove the strong Mennonite belief in peace. The words Good-bye and Auf Wiedersehen are also stitched prominently into the quilt. Many of the home’s residents, including Mom and Dad, count German as their first langauge.
After Mom died, and we were waiting for the funeral directors to come, the nursing home staff covered Mom with that quilt, which had been hanging on the wall of the palliative care room. When the funeral directors arrived, they placed Mom on a gurney, and then they too covered her with that special quilt. As a family we lined up two by two behind the gurney, and holding each others hands, followed the funeral directors who slowly pushed Mom down the nursing home hallway, through the spacious lobby and out the front doors. Some family members stood with Dad inside watching through the big front windows, while a number of us went outside along with Mom as they transferred her into the waiting hearse. The funeral directors then took the quilt off Mom, folded it ceremoniously, much like they fold a flag at a military funeral, and returned it to the Mennonite Home staff. We stood in the cool autumn morning, whispering good-bye and waving farewell, many of us with tears streaking down our faces, as Mom left her last home for the last time.
I had heard the phrase ‘dying well’ before, but last week I think I learned what it meant.