Originally published April 29, 2012
Janet Vaughn sits half-inclined on her bed and thinks of a tomorrow. But hers will not be the tomorrow the rest of us envision. Her mind is on a coming-soon tomorrow that will see her struggle for one more breath, and then find there are no more. On that tomorrow, Janet Vaughn will die.
Janet is in home hospice, which means she officially is waiting for the end, usually within six months. Janet is on her eighth month. Hospice is a limbo between the end of hope and the end. According to Janet, it’s actually a place of some relief because all the guesswork is done. Hospice is the last word.
Janet is a 69-year-old single mother who lives in a pleasant Oceanside home with roses out front that once were lovingly kept. Living with her and helping with her care is her adult daughter, April, and a yorkie named Pickles.
She was diagnosed 3½ years ago with congestive heart failure. Until last year, she regularly dragged herself to the doctor only to hear the same words that marked her descent, step by gasping, hurting step. Finally, she was told there would be no recovery. Only time remained. Time as a fading wisp.
Now, knowing the future, she has time to think, to leaf through the pages of receding years. She keeps coming back to the memory of taking into her home and caring for 105 sick children, mainly drug babies, as a foster parent for the Orange County Social Services Agency. She knows the number, she says, because each one was important to her.
These days, Janet’s body carries a great amount of water that it cannot process. That’s called edema, a matter-of-fact clinical term that doesn’t describe the laborious shifting in bed and the slow dragging across the floor to the bathroom that it causes. Janet is bed-bound and can rarely struggle to her family room recliner. She can’t see the sun or watch the rain from her bedroom.
Even so, she doesn’t see the glass as only half full: it’s full to the brim. “Finally, I don’t have to get up, get dressed and struggle to the doctor’s,” she says. “The hospice caretakers come to me. I see the nurse once a week, and the woman who changes the sheets and gets my medicines and stuff also comes once a week. It’s now just waiting.”
Just waiting. She says that as other people might say they’re “just waiting” for “American Idol” to start.
She is on about 25 different medications, including all the morphine she can tolerate. Even then, Janet remains cheerful.
“What’s the point of feeling sorry for myself?” she asks. “I know what’s going to happen, and I have my faith to sustain me. It’s a beautiful life.” On the wall nearby is a framed portrait of Christ. It is not there as décor. She does not have a death wish, but a wish to die well.
On her last day, Janet wants to be upbeat and squared-away with her reality. “People seem to think that when you’re dying you’re too depressed to talk about it. Why shouldn’t you? People like to talk about their lives. Well, this is my life — still.”
OK, one thinks, but that’s right now, this pleasant afternoon. How about those wee, small hours of the morning that the ballad warns us of? Does she not wake in the early dawn’s grayness, all alone, stare at the ceiling and ask the eternal rhetorical questions: Why me? Why now?
“Sure, I get down, get depressed. My mind feels the pain, and the thoughts that I will no longer see my children. I wonder how my grandchildren will develop. I’ll never drive along the beach again. But I don’t let that take control of me.” Janet pauses, starts to say something, then doesn’t.
Her thoughts come back to the children. Always the children. She sees their faces, unchanged for all the years. That she held them, fed them, and diapered them is an affirmation of the belief she wants to leave behind: “I tried hard to serve other people. If you do that, it will make you feel glad to be alive.”
She wants to be remembered for her cheerfulness. That’s a modest-sounding goal until one thinks about how tough it is for the rest of us to stay cheerful for a whole day. For those who will remember her, it’s what she hopes they occasionally mention.
Sounds like the idyllic life. But no, she objects. “I had all the troubles of an ordinary person; worse than some, not as bad as others: Marriage problems, money problems, child-raising problems, and certainly health problems. I’m pretty much just like you and everyone else. But so what? This is not the time for a pity party.”
Her son is flying in from Texas this day. She has a chocolate cake for him that says, “Love you, Bri.”
On a later day, Janet leans back on her pillows and points to a row of pills on the nightstand. “Please hand me my nitroglycerin pills,” she asks with a laugh. “Over there. Right next to the birth control pills.”
She turns serious. “The nurse was just here and said my lungs are unchanged, but my heart is getting weaker. My memory is worse and I have a bad pain in my arm. All I can do is hobble to the bathroom.”
She says she’d like another chocolate cake, and that she wouldn’t hesitate to eat it. “I won’t worry about my waistline.” She laughs wanly, determined not to shrink from the approaching shadow.
As days slip into weeks, her disease presses down with strength-sapping pressure. Willpower drains with fatigue. Gradually, resistance is lowered, and what lies ahead is less feared. It will work its will.
“I’m dying. I feel it, and I know it. And I’m ready.”
Soon, the ambulance will come and back into the driveway, and then will drive quietly away with no need to hurry. Janet’s house will be sold. Her daughter will move away, taking Pickles on his leash. The neighbors will meet the newcomers and then forget the woman who used to live there.
Those to whom she spoke of her values, they will remember her. For a while. Then Janet will become one with the spirit of others who also once lived and tried.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected]