Ah, Savannah! Cobblestone streets which lead to an endless river walk, the hint of hauntings and pirates and…. humidity. My God, the Humidity! 48 hours spent in 95% humidity and thermometers which race to 98 by 10 am. I learned a new term in Savannah: swamp pants. No need for detailed description.
Amidst a swarm of tourists there are caramel coated Southern men who tip their caps and, with honey-dipped accent, say “good evening ladies, y’all lookin’ beautiful tonight.” It is not lost on me that were the same type of man to approach me on a sidewalk in Danbury, CT, that flirt might feel intrusive or vaguely threatening. On the streets of Savannah, it makes me feel…..well, lovely!
The breadth of architecture in the city almost makes you forget the heat. How many different styles can create neighborhood squares? Georgian, Federal, Gothic, Greek, and Italianate merging together, flanked by majestic oaks draped in Spanish moss and grand magnolias just past their bloom. Rather than distract, the lack of uniform architecture intrigues; each neighborhood like a different movie set. Savannah, you are stunning! I only wish I had more than 48 hours to give you.
But 48 it is, and once my daughter is settled in for a week at Savannah College of Art and Design with the hope of finding her heart’s desire, my mind and body returns to the business of Uncle Bobby. Last week he moved from home hospice to inpatient hospice care at a newly opened local facility. Regional Hospice is stunning in its own way, understated elegance diverts attention from the very real business of the journey to what we hope is peaceful death.
To gain a bed in this elegant, twelve patient model of dignified care, the end must be foreseeable. Uncle Bobby has been dwindling for many months, but the final leg seems a bit like pulling an anvil through the sand with a rope of taffy. His body has mostly shut down, but his mind is where the fight lives. He has a beautiful, nimble, oft surprising mind which scoffs at the destruction of the rest of him.
The hospice Chaplain said this to me recently,
“I have seen denial of the inevitable to nearly the last breath, but I sense something else with Robert. It is as if he has he’s fought so hard in his life that he is conditioned to fight on. It’s remarkable, really.”
I was nervous to be away from him during the Savannah 48 and return to discover that perhaps my concern was justified.
As I head toward his room on Tuesday morning, I am intercepted by his on-duty nurse.
“Well, he hasn’t eaten or taken liquids since you left.”
Confirmation for me that my choice to skip the vacation end of my trip was prescient.
Any swagger gained in Savannah let’s go like helium from a fourth of July balloon. I enter his room with trepidation and immediately spy the nearly empty catheter bag. Uncle Bobby is speaking in low murmur to the local Catholic Deacon who interjects solemn nods with practiced empathy.
“It’s brutal here.”, Uncle Bobby offers weakly to Deacon Peter.
“The nights are the worst. No one pays attention to me.”
That would be the dehydration speaking. Of this I am sure, attention and care at Hospice exceeds reasonable expectation.
His mouth is dry, his eyes sunken and cheekbones more pronounced that just three days before. Gaunt would be the adjective of the day.
It strikes me, as Uncle Bobby drones on, that Deacon Peter is a bit above his pay grade in this moment.
“Robert, is than anything I can offer you in spiritual support?”
I know, of course, that Uncle Bobby’s spiritual underpinnings are well in place. There is an agenda here that no amount of scripture or communal prayer will address. Uncle Bobby knows his agenda, he just needs an interpreter.
There is no warm welcome home when he realizes I am there. He nods to Deacon Peter,
“Oh, here’s my niece, she’s just arrived via airplane.”
He laughs a little to assure everyone he can still tease with effect.
I stand over him,
“Well, hello. I hear you’re doing quite the imitation of Ghandi.”
At this Uncle Bobby realizes that the jig is up, and stares straight ahead, tightening his slack jaw to firmly pronounce,
His eyes briefly turn to me to gauge response, only to return to a straight ahead glare which indicates that negotiations are about to begin.
“So, to choose not to eat or drink tells me you’re not hungry or thirsty?”
“No, I’m hungry.”, he replies.
“ Okay then..”, and I shift with the practiced competence of anyone who has raised children.
“What can I do to convince you to drink something?”
With that, Uncle Bobby lifts his feeble arm, straightens his index finger and points to his left.
“I WANT to sit in THAT chair!”.
Clarity! Clarity I can deal with.
He is tired of the bed. The bed he refused to get out of for the past month now frustrates him.
“Let me see what I can do.”, I tell him and take a short leave.
A chat with the head nurse and doctor and some fine negotiation surrounding their concerns for his frailty and suddenly a move to a reclining chair is in the works.
In answer to their concern about his frailty I say this,
“Well, he is dying, and mostly miserable, so I think a request not to languish in a hospital bed is reasonable. If the chair is where he dies, well at least he gets control over something. Right?”
That resonates and the promise is made. Ghandi can nourish himself and the strike can end peacefully.
Uncle Bobby seems unimpressed by my problem-solving success. I return to him with the news and insist the reward for my cleverness be his agreement to take a sip of juice.
As I lift the lidded plastic cup to his lips, he waves it away momentarily, looks me right in the eyes and says,
“Just because I’m drinking doesn’t mean they can expect me to be some easy boy now.”
I roll my eyes as I watch him take in the liquid,
“Not to worry, Uncle Bobby. there’s not a prayer anyone here will ever confuse you with some easy boy.”
The following morning, I return and Bobby gets moved to the chair, which has wheels. For nearly two hours he sits up and takes in the lay of the land of his new home. He even goes outside for a bit, lifting his face to the sun with closed eyes.
From the garden, we go back inside and sit for a bit in the elegant library where he quizzes my brother, just up from Virginia for a short visit. Then we shift venues to the family room, where a darling elderly lady, propped up my pillows in her wheelchair listens intently to her extended, very animated visitors. They are loud and funny and remembering their childhood in her home. There are references to Mario Lanza and Edie Gorme, and bread from a bakery in the Bronx.
We can barely speak to each other over their din, but it doesn’t matter. Uncle Bobby is smiling and fascinated. He pokes my forearm and whispers, “Italians! I feel like I’m back in Providence!”
Sure, Italians and Irish, constant cousins in Rhode Island and it feels a bit like home in hospice this day.
Uncle Bobby loves this. It is life and living and it takes him away from the smallness of a lonely room and too familiar hospital bed.
It was a wonderful day. He has had too few of them since spring.
He eventually gives in to weariness and we return him to his room. The nurses lift him back in his bed with smiles. They know how important this adventure has been and Uncle Bobby’s contentment lifts them.
As I move to leave I tell uncle Bobby that I’m proud of him. He likes that and it prompts him to finally ask,
“How was Savannah?”
“Just great, Uncle Bobby. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.”
It moves me that this day has taken him away from his perseverations.
While I needed an airplane and the charms of the South to rejuvenate, Uncle Bobby needed but a chair with wheels.
I will tell him that Savannah was, like hospice is today, full of life and living.