Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Bright Line

I could see the line the instant I opened the door.

Even before I knew that Mr. ____ was dead, I could see that line.

Actually, it's not exactly a line that you can see, but I could feel it. I knew it was there.

It's the kind of a line we are all familiar with: the demarcation between where you are supposed to be and where you aren't.

Sometimes, that line is pretty clearly marked. We've got lanes that make lines and lines that make lanes. Lines are just a part of being human. We have ID badges and keys and entry codes for our homes and workplaces. We have secure areas, velvet ropes and 'extens-a-barriers' in just about every public place.

We make and mark lines in many places and for many reasons. Though we profess to hate them, we are more often secretly glad to know they are there, just because they are there to make and mark our place.

Often the line an actual physical thing, like the line in a restaurant kitchen, which divides the waiter from the cooks in much the same way as the swinging doors between the kitchen and dining room divide the waiters from the patrons.

Most times, though, the lines that make up our lives are not so clearly marked. These imaginary lines are no less important, however. After all, they serve the same purpose: separating those us us who are supposed to be here from those of us who are not.

The line at the nursing home is an invisible one.

As long as Mr. ____ was alive, I didn't give it much thought; I simply crossed that imaginary line when I entered the nursing home where he lived. At first, of course, I had to show my credentials--just the Hospice Austin badge with my name on it--to the nurse when I came in, but after a while, I grew increasingly comfortable with my reason for being there and the line grew less and less visible.

It didn't take long before I began to forget that the line was even there. Anything done often enough can become routine, even watching someone die. Thursday after Thursday, I simply stepped over it and walked down the corridor to Mr. ____'s room. My routine developed over eight months--from the time I started making my weekly visits until last week.

Last Thursday, it was different.

As recently as two weeks ago, Mr. ____ was sitting up in his wheelchair and still recognized me. Last Thursday, when I arrived around 4:30, he was lying in bed, looking very peaceful. His eyes were open but when I approached, he didn't respond at all. He was breathing steadily, as though he was sleeping. In fact, he closed his eyes after a moment to actually 'sleep'.

So, I pulled up a chair and sat with him as usual. I figured this might actually be the last time I would have this opportunity. I was surprised, therefore, when at 5 o'clock, one of the nurse's aides came in to say that she was going to get him up for dinner.

I asked, "Really? Is he still eating?"

She shrugged and said that it was the nurse's orders. I must have looked startled because she went off to confirm this with the nurse. In the meantime, another nurse's aide came in to wake him up. She called his name and he opened his eyes but made no sign of recognition. I asked this woman if she thought he could eat but she just smiled and shrugged. Then the first woman returned to say, while shaking her head in dismay, that she had to get him up for dinner.

They asked me to leave the room and I did. In fact, I went ahead and left the nursing home. Before I left the room I went over to the bed to say goodbye to Mr. ____ and though his eyes were open, he made no sign.

I couldn't help but question what purpose was served in waking him up and rolling him down for a 'dinner' that he was clearly unable to eat. While I erred on the side of caution by keeping my mouth shut, I still feel guilty about it.

My expectation proved correct, however. This past Tuesday, Hospice called to ask if I would sit with Mr. ____ during what they call an '11th Hour' vigil. This is where they ask volunteers to sit with the dying person till the very end. I volunteered for an 8am to noon shift the next day, Wednesday.

But, when I arrived Wednesday morning and opened the door, I saw the resident nurse's eyes and just knew that the line had been drawn. She told me what I already knew and I withdrew immediately, feeling more like an intruder than the regular visitor I'd been for the better part of a year.

In some ways, this loss of access made me sadder than knowing of Mr. ____'s departure. Without meaning to or even realizing it, I had begun to cling, as we all do, to that safe haven, that semblance of order and rightness in the world which we call a routine.

Though I will miss Mr. ____, I selfishly confess that it is the routine I will miss. It is that unquestioned access to his intimate space, the unspoken permission granted to cross that oh-so-private life-line that I will miss most.

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