Dying Is Hard

Six days ago I saw Geri at home; today I’m visiting her in hospice. Hospice. The word jars me. It’s so sudden. She was her groomed and gracious self on Friday, wearing one of the several soft fleecy workout suits — in mauve, taupe, turquoise, black — she’d acquired for at-home wear. PJs and robes are for bedtime, she says, not for entertaining guests. We had planned lunch at St. Tropez and a 2:00 showing of “The Accidental Husband,” but she was having a bad day. Her wearying battle with ovarian cancer has ended the gardening and hiking we used to do, relegating us, in our early 60s, to the “ladies who lunch” contingent. She expressed chagrin at having to cancel even a sedentary date. I could see her pain, the strain and exhaustion in her eyes, but she pooh-poohed it: “Just another setback,” she said. “I’ll bounce back soon.”

Courtesy: Klarika Huszar

Courtesy: Klarika Huszar

San Diego Hospice sits at the far end of Third Avenue in the busy Hillcrest neighborhood. An urban yet isolated retreat, it perches on a finger of land that juts north like a compass point, separated from the clamor and snarl of intersecting freeways below by canyon spilling down on three sides. The single-story cream-colored buildings are unassuming, the grounds meticulously tended, the “campus,” as it’s called, a hushed hilltop aerie.

I follow a curved walkway to the Inpatient Care Center and sign in at the reception desk. I see on the visitors’ register that Jenn, Ellie and Clare have been in already this morning. She’ll be tired — I won’t stay long. A gleaming mahogany baby grand piano graces the lobby. Smartly-upholstered chairs are clustered nearby, none occupied at present but poised and ready for ambulatory patients and their guests, family and friends spelling each other at bedsides. Watercolors by local artists line the hallway back to the two wings of patient rooms. Living images — flowers and landscapes, animals and birds — blaze in a tropical palette. A cheerful atmosphere is studiously maintained, but patients, visitors, and staff all know that hospice is a short-term detour for the dying.

A list of “signs to look for as the end draws near” is given to families and loved ones of hospice patients: disorientation and withdrawal, loss of appetite, difficulty keeping the eyes open and focused. Geri’s daughter, Jennifer, has warned me that her mother is showing a number of these symptoms. Her decline seems dizzyingly rapid; I steel myself for the encounter.

An attendant at the nurses’ station directs me to the last room, number 106. The door is closed, so I tap lightly and murmur her name as I enter. Geri recognizes my voice and beckons me in, alert and welcoming. She waves her arm in front of her, chuckling, dark eyes flashing: “Look at this — it’s more like a hotel than a hospital room, don’t you think?” She points out the hardwood floors, plush furnishings and original artwork on the walls. “Not stamped out by cookie-cutters on the Ikea assembly line,” she says, as one who knows at a glance the difference between quality and mediocrity.

I nod and agree, admiring the tasteful blue-grays and yellow-ochers — no hospital whites or frilly pinks — but the surroundings don’t fully register. Her altered appearance pierces my heart like a needle, threatens my façade of composure. The transformation is abrupt. She has assumed the unmistakable aura of what she is, a dying woman.

Her skin is translucent, pearl-like. Her aristocratic cheekbones jut out like knives, and the spaghetti-thin strap of her nightgown slips off her skeletal shoulder. The burgundy satin gown casts a soft glow on her pale cheeks, as if the sun were setting behind her, and I compare the gown’s rich hue to a mellow merlot, tell her how it lights her face. She beams: “You know you’ll never catch me in one of those god-awful hospital gowns.”

Appearance is more than a veneer for Geri, it’s her grasp on her identity. When she feels good about the way she looks, she feels better physically. The chic east-coast-sophistication that is her hallmark clings to her, and she to it, in spite of her illness. I think of Geri “BC” — before cancer — immaculately dressed and bejeweled, perfectly coiffed and made up. Even now her hair and skin maintain the luster of a lifetime of care and pampering. In a photo on my desk at home, taken around the time we met as colleagues several years ago, her deep-set dark chocolate eyes gaze straight at me, hinting at the smile that barely turns up the corners of her mouth. Her blunt-cut silver-blond tresses sweep over one eye and graze her chin. Her smartly fitted black blazer, brushed gold pin and earrings suggest Bucks County, the Hamptons, Bergdorf Goodman, the Met. This is what I remember: Geri at 60, her own woman, well at ease.

 

Sometimes she talks about her illness, her pain. About dying. About two-year-old Aidan, the grandson she won’t see grow up. When she’s feeling stronger and the pain is under control, like today, she wants to get out of herself, be distracted. Today she wants to hear about me.

I tell her that my Phalaenopsis is putting out a new spike, its first rebloom, thanks to her. She’s A Certified Master Gardener and has a magic touch with orchids; she helped me nurse my sickly specimens back to life. I tell her a juicy bit of gossip about someone we used to work with, and her eyes twinkle with glee as she adds a snarky “I’m not surprised.” We exchange news about our daughters, both Jennifers in their thirties, something else we share.

“What did you wear to the opera Saturday night?” she asks. Last year we went together, and she would go all out, as she used to do for operas at the Met, in something long and elegant with exquisite accessories. Black pants and a black silk shirt are as dressy as I get, to her dismay, but she keeps hoping that I’ll surprise her. “How was the chemistry between Violetta and Alfredo? Did Don cry?” My husband weeps at operas; if he remains dry-eyed through a tear-jerker like “La Traviata,” the production must have been flat.

She asks about my writing. I read her the introduction from the paper I will be presenting at the Virginia Woolf Conference next month. Then for a little comic relief I read a snippet from a new story I’m working on; she appreciates my twists of dark humor and rewards me with her sparkling laughter, her impish irony.

 

Frequent interruptions assure that we don’t forget where we are. A nurse checks her IV, takes her temperature. A perky young aide flutters in to take her order for lunch, chirping about the Cinco de Mayo special. Geri grimaces, rejects the enchilada and beans in favor of cottage cheese and fruit.

She rings for help to turn over in bed, and her call is answered by a volunteer in a gun-metal gray suit, gel-starched iron-gray hair, and a taut, nervous smile. The woman bustles around the bed, fluffing pillows and smoothing covers while tut-tutting remarks intended to soothe.

“Here we go, dear, let’s get you comfy.”

“Lift your arm for me, honey; that’s the way!”        

A flicker of anger narrows Geri’s eyes; her lips draw into a thin line. She struggles to mask her indignation at this fawning over-solicitousness, an assault to her dignity. I long to see her flare up, like the Geri of old, to fire out with a mix of mirth and malice, “Excuse me, dear, but I am a mature adult even if I’m on my deathbed.”

She remains silent, and we avoid making eye content until the woman leaves the room. “Dying is hard,” she says.