Monday, January 30, 2012
This is Jan Selman, an artist and women’s political coach who I met this weekend at a dinner party. She lost her 85 year old mother to cancer last year. Jan spoke at length about having hospice in her home, and how positive that experience was for her family and for her mom. Hospice care provided palliative medical treatment, and a compassionate bridge into death. The scenario, she noted, was better than dying in a hospital.
I squirmed as Jan’s story unfolded, realizing at some point that my mom’s hospice in 1997 in her Decatur Georgia nursing home, Harvest Heights, was far from homey. The setting felt like a hospital with nurses, aides, people in wheelchairs, and sanitized hallways flooded in neon. It was not bad, just not as personal.
I took this picture of Mom two months before she passed away. She had fallen, broken a hip and injured her eye. She was incontinent, and had dementia, but often still recognized me and was always cheerful. In the fall of that year she stopped eating and drinking. I initiated hospice care in her room at the nursing home after she was sent twice to The Atlanta Medical Center (formerly Georgia Baptist Hospital) to give her intravenous fluids, and stabilize her body chemistry. I made this tough decision after a meeting with her doctor and nurses, and in accordance with her living will wish for no extraordinary medical interventions.
Nothing much changed as far as the look of Mom’s nursing home room. It was now called hospice. We offered her food and drink, but did not force it. Mom was in a semi-private room with a curtain separating her from a woman with advanced Alzheimer’s. This woman lay in a fetal position by the window moaning or calling out. Her family, who I only saw once, kept a TV next to her that was turned on all day and probably all night–for comfort, I assume. During my mother’s last days on earth we sat with her while football games, commercials and talk shows played just beyond the curtain. It was disconcerting, but Mom did not seem to mind, and eventually slipped into a coma and died on December 6, 1997. For me the atmosphere in that room still feels surreal.
These are two portraits I drew of Mom based on the photograph. I covered her face in one of them, but I left her large eyes open so she could see through.
I took a final picture of Mom's hands while in hospice, and after her death I did a plan drawing for something I called “Helping Hand Wings for Hazel...Who Was Afraid of Death”. I imagined a zip-on winged contraption to enable her to pass fearlessly through the transition.
Two weeks ago I discovered two pictures of Mom as a teenager probably from 1923, and as a young adult around 1929 that touched me with their sweetness. They were pasted inside an old photo album she had stored in a footlocker in my basement. I include them here.