I had been forewarned about her. My coworker had tried to visit and Alice had yelled "You need an appointment! You can't just show up here unannounced." When asked when she might have an opening, Alice said, "Maybe next week." Hearing this story made me realize I was going to like this woman and I would have to find my way in.
When my turn came, I knocked softly and stayed at the threshold. She was sitting in her chair, with her hair well coiffed, a smart outfit on and looking very much like a woman from another time. She asked what I wanted. I held up the flowers in my hands and nodded to her. She was immediately suspicious and said "They aren't for me." I explained that they were for her, if she liked them. I waited. I am ashamed to say that at this point I was feeling not unlike I would have had I been approaching an unpredictable animal. I waited until I felt a slow moving current between us. I brought them in and put them on the first horizontal surface I found, the edge of her dresser. I smiled and backed out of the room.
I read up about her. Her whole life she had lived with sister. Her sister had died 6 months earlier, necessitating the move to the nursing home. She was not used to her home having a revolving door of unannounced visitors.
The next week I brought three slender pink-red tulips from my garden. Their simple beauty made her pause. She pointed at her tray table and said, "You can bring those right over here." Then we got to talking about her garden. I asked 2 or 3 more questions and she said, "You ask too many questions!" and started banging her walker. Out I went.
During my next visit, I could see that she was struggling to get out of her chair. I offered to help. She said, "I guess you could help me. I need to get to the bathroom." This little connection made me feel hopeful.
After being away for a weekend, I went to see her and at 10 am she was still in bed. Her hair was disheveled and she looked uncomfortable. I pulled up a chair and asked what I could do. She reached for my hand and said, "Pull me up." I quickly realized she didn't want to be pulled up but she wanted to pull herself up by grabbing on to me. So she pulled herself into a better position. I asked if I could brush her hair. She nodded. As a doula there is often a moment like this where all of a sudden you are brought inside someone's bubble. And there is a trust and a sense of gratitude and relief that is palapable. I looked around and noticed all of her personal care products where well out of her reach. Noxzema for the inside of her nose, moisturizer for her face, her one barrette. I washed her face and hands with a warm washcloth. She taught me her daily routine. At the end I asked her how she felt. She closed her eyes and said, "Like I've died and gone to heaven."
From now on I would visit every morning and repeat these tasks. I would sit with her while her breathing became erratic. I would put cool wash cloths on her feverish forehead and hold her hand when she wanted it.
One day I went in and her bed was empty. I never get used to this feeling of abrupt and total disorientation. It is part of my job at the facility to think about these moments. All the moments of death that impact everyone. Staff continually says they feel these moments acutely. How do we as an institution communicate death?
Every resident I work with teaches me something. Alice taught me to respect threshold of someone's room as if it is the door to their house. But more importantly she taught me to not enter someone's room with a task to do. So often in health care we enter people's room with a job to do with little regard for the person involved. It sounds trite. But so many of their experiences are extractive. Everyone is coming in to DO something. As a doula we have the luxury of coming in to see what the resident wants to DO.