It was 2:30 pm on a Friday afternoon when the phone rang. It was Fred, my client’s son. ‘Mom’s asking for you. Can you come?’ Twenty minutes later I was perched beside my client on her bed and holding her warm soft hands in mine. Her extremely furry Himalayan cat named ‘Beaux’ was lying across her belly.
‘Are you ready to go soon Ethel? Is it time?’, I asked. The last couple of days had shifted her condition very quickly for some reason. ‘I’ll miss you’ I said, trying not to cry.
‘I’ll miss our Shabbat menu check ins on Friday mornings. I’ll miss turning the water off for Beaux after he’s finished playing in the shower. I won’t be able to see your five hundredth afghan get finished!’’ Ethel nodded, smiled and squeezed my hands together gently.
After a few minutes of my chatter I carefully lifted her from her pillows, hugged her close to me and said goodbye.
Kissing her cheek, I plumped her pillows around her and tucked her back in. I kissed Beaux on the head and told him he had been a lovely friend. His mom would be gone soon but he would be well loved in a grandson’s home.
Ethel’s four sons alternated between being seated and pacing through the large condo. Grief on their faces, tears on their cheeks. Over the years it had been arranged that each son had a different ‘day’ when they would call to check in and say hello. Today was likely going to be their last check in.
Daughters-in-law and a few grandchildren were quietly talking together and making coffee in the kitchen. It was peaceful, happy and sad all at the same time.
Knowing this was the last time I would see Ethel was SO hard. For over nine years we had spent two hours a week talking with each other as we exercised. When she received her diagnosis of cervical cancer almost a year before she died, she didn’t tell me - or anyone else. I knew something was up when I saw her the day she got her diagnosis and her prognosis but I respected her need to keep her news to herself.
In just the last few weeks of her life, before she became unable to walk, Ethel asked me to walk with her to get a cup of coffee at a favourite corner coffee shop. I knew Ethel wanted to breathe the crisp fresh air of the early morning, feel the warm sunshine on her cheeks and sense the energetic pulse of her Bay and Bloor neighbourhood in Toronto one more time.
On our way home I needed to push her the last few metres to her condo door. She perched on the seat of her walker with her hands lightly resting over mine on the handles. Ethel barely made it home that day. Her smile as the elevator doors closed was worth my initial hesitancy at our ‘trip’.
At 94 and a half years old Ethel was still traveling the world with her son Fred. They followed operas across the globe as they were performed at famous opera houses. It was her greatest passion. Ethel would explain each opera's story to me before she left on every trip. Six or seven times every year Fred and his mother would go on opera themed river cruises, wander the world’s great museums and eat incredible food. Annual jaunts to New York and Paris were much anticipated. Fred and Ethel always traveled first class and always for at least 10 days at a time.
Ethel returned from her last trip only two weeks before she was gone. She had a full, long, happy life.
It was a happy death, if there could ever be such a thing.
In almost 30 years of working with clients, I’ve been to many funerals and sat shivas with countless families. I have a very hard time getting through the day for weeks after my clients’ deaths. I thought it would get easier. It hasn’t. I would often go about my regular work day, drive to their home - sometimes even pulling into their driveways - before remembering they weren’t home.
I call family members to check in and say hello for the first couple of weeks after someone has died. We had seen each other many times over the years and I knew I was going to miss following their lives week by week.
After a client dies I’ve told myself many times to ‘be brave’ as I call family members, give my condolences and ask about funeral or memorial arrangements. I’ve wandered through cemeteries to leave stones on grave markers and crouch by new headstones to read inscriptions.
While there are many more stories like this, this one hit me particularly hard. Knowing my clients this well is lovely. Losing what feels like members of my own family is incredibly heartbreaking. I’ve often felt like I have been blessed by multiple grandparents over the years! I know that they will pass away. I understand that they are trying their best to often manage more than one autoimmune disease with multiple medications and significant limitations to their mobility. And yet their lives are full of meaning in their daily routines.
Experiencing their deaths never gets easier. It always feels like I drift for weeks feeling untethered and unsettled. I miss the habits, the routines, the easy conversations, their progress and their patience as I introduce yet another ‘thing’ I’ve learned at some course or other.
I work with clients who are over 70 and, most commonly it seems, over 90. The difference that activity, exercise and small lifestyle changes can make is most incredible. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Learning about dying and death this way has been fascinating, sad and lovely. I enjoy every session with my clients fully aware that it may be our last.
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