1. Tucker, Sheila

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Looking up from my desk, I see a painting on the wall. The artist presents a view as if one were looking through a window at an exceptionally inviting golf course. The vibrant colors of flowers and trees mixed with the soft hues of the fairway greens are so real, the senses become engaged and one can almost feel the breeze and smell spring in the air. A bridge artfully put together by a stonemason offers a pathway over the creek and access to more beauty on the other side. The picture offers moments of retreat from my sometimes hectic workplace, but equally important, it reminds me of the privilege I had a few years ago of being a companion to my mother-in-law as she moved across the bridge from this life to the next.


I met Billie after I married her son and only child, Bill. Billie's right side had been paralyzed by a debilitating stroke 10 years before, and her right arm and leg were contracted against her body. She had lost her ability to speak in words, but did her best to let us know her thoughts through her eyes and by making some sounds. Because of her total dependency, she was a resident in a nursing home that had been thoughtfully selected by her son, who visited frequently.


Billie looked forward to her son's visits. Her eyes would light up like a Christmas tree when he walked into the room. He brought music and joy to her life by playing his guitar and singing to her; diabetic sweets bestowed special moments along with the television set he had placed in her room. Billie's world consisted of her bed, the television, and one small window with a restricted view of the great outdoors she had so enjoyed in earlier, happier times.


Then the time came when Billie's health began to deteriorate. She suffered some severe respiratory problems and a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. Bill and I rushed to the hospital to be with her. Somehow we both knew she wouldn't be coming back to familiar surroundings.


We met the physician in the Emergency Room. He told us that Billie's lungs were full of fluid which was an indication that her heart was failing. The Emergency Room staff had already done CPR on her before we arrived and had also shocked her heart once. She was admitted to the intensive care unit and for 3 days we stayed with her at the hospital. It was touch and go many times. Two more times we stood by as her heart was shocked back into rhythm with the defibrillator and each time her bright blue eyes began to look more and more tired and she became less alert. She was connected to a ventilator so she could breathe.


Through it all, Billie's blue eyes still lit up when Bill walked into the room. She had a way of communicating with her eyes that was amazing. We could actually understand what she was trying to say by the way she talked through her eyes.


Although I never got to have a verbal exchange with Billie, I sensed her approval of me both as a person and as the wife of her dear son. Now as I sat by Billie's bedside and held her hand, we communicated as much as we could. (I have never appreciated being able to speak so much until I went through this with Billie.) There are so many things to say and feelings to express when you know the end of life is near. Her mind must have been filled with thoughts that she would have loved to verbalize. Doubtless there were messages of love and gratitude she would have expressed to Bill, along with her wishes for him to live a fulfilled life in the days and years ahead.


With no signs of physical improvement and further indications of deterioration, the doctor approached Bill about making the decision to discontinue life support and let his mother go without any further attempts to resuscitate her. After considerable thought, Bill made the terribly difficult decision to tell the hospital staff that he did not want her to be resuscitated anymore, and the ventilator could be discontinued. Although he knew it was the right decision, he felt that he had let Billie down. He gave her one final goodbye kiss, told her he loved her, and left the room, knowing that emotionally he was unable to come back in.


Billie was still alert, but was slipping away. After the ventilator was removed, her breathing became labored. She was fighting so hard to stay conscious. I sensed that she wanted to communicate with me. Looking into her eyes, I realized she needed assurance of my commitment to care for Bill in the same way they had cared for one another. I tried my best to reassure her that Bill loved her and that he would be fine. I knew that Billie understood me when she took her wedding ring from her finger and slipped it into my hand to keep.


I knew the time was drawing near because Billie's moments of consciousness were fewer, but she seemed fearful. She would doze off, then wake up suddenly with a look of sheer terror in her eyes. I knew that I could just not leave her to go on alone; I needed to be there for her. My own sense of inadequacy for the task of accompanying someone on this path was overwhelming as I had no idea what to expect. I asked her nurse, Wynona, to stay with me and help me through this. I needed her to keep me informed of what was happening as Billie went through the dying process. This would relieve my own fear and then perhaps I could help Billie relax and go peacefully to that other world. Wynona agreed to be my coach and I will always be grateful for her knowledge and compassionate support during those last moments of Billie's life.


As Wynona began to explain to me how Billie's vital signs would drop and her breathing would become more labored, I climbed into bed with Billie and we began to communicate in a most unusual way. I took her hand and asked her to go for a walk with me. I described a green meadow full of fragrant flowers and a soft breeze blowing on our skin. Billie's eyes talked to me. I think she sensed that we were entering the last journey she would take on this earth and I knew she was saying she wanted Bill there. I explained to her that Bill could not be there, but if she would listen, the sounds of his guitar and singing were floating across the meadow to accompany us on our walk and that was how he would be with her. I told Billie that we were barefoot and could feel the cool grass beneath our feet. I asked her to reach down with her hand and pick up a flower and smell the lovely fragrance. Billie's left hand moved and I told her to use her right hand because it was whole and she could again use every part and sense of her body.


All the while, Wynona was in the background softly explaining to me what all the machines around Billie were doing, and that her heart rate was starting to drop and her breathing might become more labored. Wynona told me that it might seem that Billie could no longer hear me, but she encouraged me to continue to speak as if I knew Billie could hear every word I was saying. She told me to expect Billie's eyes to roll back into her head. As I listened to Wynona, I noticed that Billie's breathing was shallower and she was becoming so much more relaxed. I was certain that my own calmness and confidence had established trust in her that I would go with her as far as I could. At the same time, I was trusting Wynona to help me with my fear of the unknown.


I told Billie that I didn't know what her favorite song was and I regretted that because I knew how much she loved music. But as I held her, I sang "I Come to the Garden Alone" with her, and I truly believe she was singing in her own way.


We stopped briefly on our walk, and I suggested that we were running our hands through our hair and could feel the wind blow softly on our faces. We could feel the warm sunshine and hear the birds singing. Billie began to relax more and more. Wynona moved softly in the background tending to the monitoring devices that were still attached. It was so surreal that I could be in this spiritual other place with Billie and still be aware of Wynona in the background, but it was such a comfort to me to know that Wynona was there with us to take care of the earthly body, so that I was able to concentrate on the spiritual experience of the moment with Billie.


As we continued our journey, I told Billie that we had come to the lake at the far side of the meadow. We slipped our bare feet into the water and felt the cool, clear trickle of the water between our toes. We reached down and splashed a little bit on our faces and smiled and laughed at how refreshing it felt. As our walk continued, I told Billie to look toward the end of the lake and see the bridge that crossed over to the other side. I told her I could not cross over that bridge, but she could and someday we would see her on that other side. It would be so wonderful because she would be completely whole and we would be able to talk and sing and dance and hug. But for now, she needed to cross that bridge.


It was at this point that a calm serenity entered the room. I can still remember Wynona at my side, tending to the machines and softly telling me what to expect. She totally took the fear out of what happens to the body as the soul leaves. She told me to expect Billie to gasp for breath and that her body might stiffen at the last moment. Knowing this, I was not afraid to give Billie one last hug as I told her to go to the bridge.


Her body took its final breath, and with her eyes open and transfixed, her soul left the room. I knew she was on the bridge. I could almost see her stopping halfway across to wave with her right hand, which was now whole, and then she was walking with both legs and a smile on her face. Billie had crossed the bridge.