In October 2014, my mother spent the last eight days of her life in a beautiful South Carolina hospice facility. My daughter and I were there with her, witnessing the closing act of her nearly 82 years. A stream of visitors kept us company. On what I consider her “last good Sunday,” a little therapy dog was brought in. My mother stroked the dog’s silky ears and cooed, “Oh, puppy, puppy, puppy.” In the days that followed, she slowly drifted away.
I slept each of the eight nights in a recliner next to her bed, waking frequently as staff came in to monitor her condition and administer pain medication. My mother seemed more agitated after dark, perhaps because she’d never liked being alone. I did my best to soothe her.
When the end came, early on a Thursday evening, she went quietly, without fanfare. Not really her style at all.
The 24/7 backdrop to those eight days and nights was the roar of my mother’s oxygen machine. I inquired early on whether the oxygen was extending her life unnecessarily. No, the nurses said, it was a comfort measure consistent with hospice guidelines. Without oxygen, they told me, my mother would feel like she was suffocating.
I could never quite tune out the sound of that oxygen machine.
A couple of weeks ago, when I arrived to play at the assisted living community where Jeanette lives, I heard it again. Jeanette’s oxygen machine was plugged in behind the piano, and the unit sat right next to the bench. She was at her lunch table a few feet away, tethered by long tubing and a nasal cannula.
I set out my sheet music and started playing, accompanied by the whoosh of the big machine at my right elbow. If the device had had arms, it could have joined me for a duet. It was that close. The noise distracted me for a while, but soon became familiar.
And oddly comforting.
Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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