Have you ever noticed how people from the East Coast greet each other for the first time? Being from the East Coast myself, I can explain it: first, you start by learning the province where the other person lives, then you zero in to the home town and at that point you go down a list of people until you finally identify a person known to the other. Somehow, in finding a person you both know, you find each other... get your bead on each other... feel your toes wiggle in common sand.
And so it is on the Palliative Care Unit. Two families dealing with the impending loss of a loved one – both families from the East Coast.
“Wait... my mother taught school there.”
“What school was that, if you don’t mind me asking?... No kidding! My father attended that school! What was your mother’s name?... No kidding! She taught my father! Your mother taught my father down east!”
And years later, these families meet 1,000 km away, and find the comfort of their common sand while their family members share heartbeats.
I chime in, “And Misty is from West Point, P.E.I.”
“I know that place!”
“That’s why she’s so friendly.” There being no arguments about that, we go to the next room.
“NO DOG! NO! NO!” Wife looked at me apologetically as Misty and I backed out into the hall once again.
She followed us out and said, “I don’t understand it. He loves dogs... When he got home from having his surgery he saw our dog and burst into tears, he was so glad to see her... but, that’s just the way it is with brain involvement, I guess.” She bent over to pat Misty’s head. “You’re so beautiful.”
I asked Wife how she was doing while Misty picked up her cue and cuddled into the woman’s legs.
“You know, it’s strange.” She pointed into the room beside us, Misty's tail wagging slightly. “Our lives are so similar. My name is Marie. Her name is Marietta. We have three boys from 6 to 9 years. They have 3 boys, the same ages. I’m 40. Marietta’s 40. And our husbands are here. How can that be? How can our lives be so similar... really similar, but we don’t meet until our husbands come to this floor at the same time?” She shook her head, ruffled Misty’s neck and walked back to her husband.
Misty and I looked into the next room. It was very dark inside, with the curtain drawn between the beds. A newly admitted man was in the first cubicle, head in hands while his wife rubbed his back. I knocked quietly on the door and Misty stepped in. They both looked so preoccupied that I offered, “We’re just here to see the man in the next bed.”
The woman spoke up. “He’s just... he’s deceased... just now...” Her husband shook his head, running his hand through his hair. And so it happens here. As Misty and I were coming up to the floor, a human being was breathing for the final time. His heart was slowing while two people down the hall recalled maritime geography. The Empress of Cheerios was turning down an offer of milk because with her accelerating exhaustion, it was becoming too much effort to sit up and drink from her glass. As the man’s brainstem began to shut down, another man in the next room was celebrating his victory for the day: the blood clot that had kept him bedridden the past week was resolving and he could again sit up in a chair. Opposite him, an empty bed that was occupied last week. A woman across the hall was turning down an injection – her pain was manageable for the time being, thank you. And in the next bed, a man new to the floor, watched.
Misty and I were signing out at the nurses’ station, where she was engulfed in hugs. “No, I saw her first!”
“She obviously likes me better.” Misty licked the nurse’s face. “See, I told you.”
“Hey, Misty, I know where the dog cookies are kept.” A finger placed conspiratorially over lips, long past their glossiness. “Is it okay if I give her a cookie?”
“I think she would insist.”
Misty was happily crunching on the biscuit (now we know where they are kept!) when a man approached us. We had visited he and his family a short time earlier – his wife was much too uncomfortable for a visit with the pet therapist. He crouched down to stroke Misty’s sweet face while he told us of the cancer’s determined march through his wife’s body. Misty licked his hands. Then he stood up and said, “This is great work that you’re doing.”
My reply: “it’s not work.”