Mom was homeless in the final thirteen months of her life.
She died on the fourth Tuesday of a miserable August. A month before, she’d entered a hospital for medical tests after a devastating cancer diagnosis. My mother didn’t return to her apartment. She exchanged her familiar clothes for a thin cotton smock and a patient’s plastic wristband. Without knowing it, she’d never again sleep in her bed with its toasty down comforter.
Barely a year before her cancer was discovered Mom sold the house Dad had built for her. Downsizing, as it’s politely called, was one of her hardest decisions . . . ever. She moved from her home of five decades into a sprawling retirement community, which became one of her worst decisions . . . ever. But Mom admitted selling was the right next step. For an eighty-something widow, the unexpected repairs and daily to-do lists never ended.
Was it fair to call her homeless?
Probably not, since she always had a roof over her head. She and Dad, influenced by the Great Depression, were forever cautious with money. Unlike some of her friends, she could afford to decide between housing and “life style” choices. But it’s true enough, since the old place was home, with its faded carpeting, out-of-style furniture, and trees Mom and Dad had planted. It had been a haven for their best dreams and dearest moments. As nice as her new place was, it meant rigidly scheduled meals and—not unlike a prison—residents that disappeared at night behind closed doors.
But then, unplanned, a series of hospital rooms defined and confined her final weeks.
Though never entering hospice care, we (Mom, my two sisters, and me) hoped she might improve enough to leave the hospital. Maybe, with hospice’s Medicare benefits, she could stay at a board and care, and have another new room.
With a discharge nurse loudly hinting that Mom’s stable situation meant she needed to leave the hospital, my sisters and I gathered information and explored next options.
Several facilities had an available spot. One in particular seemed well-maintained and was in a good location for Mom’s friends to visit. But I wondered: would this be the last room she would live in? The walls were a dreary lima bean green. The bathroom felt spacious, but Mom would never use it since she couldn’t walk. A window allowed ample light, but it overlooked a nondescript backyard bordered by a fence painted the color of dried blood. The staff appeared pleasant, but with every smile and answered question, they added to the crowd of strangers we’d encountered since an oncologist had informed Mom about her stage four cancer.
I wept. (Grief, always opportunistic, unleashes its powers long before death.)
I gazed at the Americans-with-disabilities-compliant room and hated that Mom would die in this home that wasn’t a home.
Was this the best choice?
Did we truly possess enough information from the doctors about her cancer and care?
Were we making hasty decisions because doing anything felt better than doing nothing?
I worried every “Yes” or “No” answer could become the first words triggering a lifetime of regrets. And I was tired; so damned tired. Have I ever made a good decision when exhausted?
But Mom didn’t die there.
Her medical problems nose-dived, requiring 24/7 attention. She did leave the hospital, but it had to be a skilled nursing facility. It was another room, and another narrow bed that wasn’t hers.
On a visit before Mom sold her home, I told her I wasn’t there because she lived at a particular address. I visited because she was one of my true “homes.” Wherever she lived, that’s where I’d call or write or show up at the door. When I said that, she cried . . . a little. She smiled . . . a little. She knew I’d spoken the truth. She knew a zip code was never as important as a hug, sharing a meal, or laughing at family memories.
This is also the truth: when confronting death, along its cruel or merciful paths, with its glacially slow or faster-than-a-speeding-bullet ways, many will arrive in a “last” room. It will be your own bed and bedroom, or a nursing facility where you eat lousy food and struggle to the bathroom, or a rented bed in a rearranged living room where your family gathers for a bittersweet reunion.
Thoughts about caring for—maybe only being with—the dying cause some to feel paralyzed. Frightened. Overwhelmed. There may be dread about entering any last room. I hope, regardless of your feelings, you will risk the step forward to be with your loved one.
Does the room really matter?
My answer would be only if it’s about creating room today in our wounded, weary hearts for those that matter most in our lives.
Larry Patten is a retired United Methodist pastor. He has served rural and suburban churches, been a campus minister and hospice chaplain, and currently works in grief support for a Fresno, California hospice. Patten maintains the website hospice-matters.com and recently published A Companion for the Hospice Journey.