The Angel in the Elevator

Back in January we Flea Sisters found ourselves swamped.

Dad and Mom were both in the hospital. Mom with a fractured pelvis and Dad with an exacerbation of his pulmonary fibrosis. I was trying to help by coming in from Greensboro.

I warred with the doctors, holding their feet to the fire, insisting that they pay attention, that they use the best and most current standard of care for Dad. Becky dealt with Mom's panic attacks and resistance to a short-term stay in a long-term facility.

We were getting a little nuts. Nuts and scared. Not a good combination.

We couldn't get people to cooperate and respond...Which is how I found myself standing beside my sister one morning, waiting for the elevator and praying.

I didn't tell her I was doing this. Having been raised a minister's kid, I tend to stay away from organized religion...but God and I chat on a fairly regular basis. This was one of those times.

I said, "Please, please help us. This is really bad and we don't know what to do."

It was a pretty pathetic plea.

I didn't even have the energy to pad my request with the usual, "Hey, I know you're busy buts..." or "Did I remember to thank you for that sunset on November 18th? It was nothing short of spectacular!"

None of that...Just Nancy to God: S.O.S!

The elevator door slid open and we stepped inside. We were murmuring to each other, trying to decide how we could get Dad to accept the possibility of Hospice. Two floors down, a newcomer got in.

She was unremarkable at first...dark-haired and plump, shorter than us...Not quite a Weeble- more like a bowling pin. She was wearing a nametag that identified her as Diane from Hospice.

I did not take this as a sign. But I did say, "Hey, I see you're from Hospice. Maybe you could tell us about how to refer someone who doesn't want to admit he needs help..."

She smiled. Her smile lit up the tiny car with energy. Her eyes sparkled, glowed really, as she began to talk.

She was a psychiatric social worker once, just like us, only now she was a nurse. Yes, she worked for Hospice and she knew exactly what we should do...only she couldn't be the one to do it for us. She was leaving to take a new job at an assisted living facility.

We were heartbroken. We wanted her for Dad. While we Fleas may disagree about how angels look in heaven, we had no problem realizing we'd found one in an elevator.

"I'll send you my very best nurse," she assured us. "I've got her handpicked for you guys."

We parted as old friends, hugging each other and promising to be in touch.

The entire ride couldn't have taken more than two minutes.

I did remember to thank God this time. I believe the prayer began "Damn, that was quick!"

When Dad had to move from the independent living apartment to the assisted living facility next door, guess who was the nurse in charge?

There she was, beaming. Diane remembered us, knew our names, knew all about the situation with my parents. But by then, Sharon was dad's personal hospice angel. So we didn't see too much of Diane. She was there, but as more of a reassurance than an active participant.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday I left Dad to take a shower and returned to find him actively dying.

It was that fast.

Becky was at his bedside, reading his favorite psalm to him...Something I had never heard Becky do. Later she told me she didn't know why she'd done it, only that "It seemed right at the time. I had no idea it was his favorite psalm until Mom told me."

My friend, Martha, had returned the day before. "It was the strangest thing," she said later. "It just came over me. I felt like I was going to come out of my skin if I didn't come back down."

When she and I walked in and saw Dad, we both knew. His face had changed. His skin was paler, bluer than it had been an hour before. But it was his breathing that let us know things were changing.

"The aide says he's snoring!" Becky said.

The aide and Becky were both in denial. It was not snoring.

I hooked him up to the pulse oximeter. His heartbeat was 220 per minute. Then 55. Then 150. He was gasping.

I called the hospice nurse but she was unavailable.

"Go down the hall and get Diane, Becky."

Martha looked at me. "Should I go get your mom?"

I looked at Dad- stepped up beside him and kissed his forehead. Diane materialized with a stethoscope around her neck and blood pressure cuff in her hand.

"This is it, isn't it?" I asked. I knew, I just wanted the reassurance of a professional opinion.

She looked at Dad. "Oh, yeah. Your mom needs to come."

She couldn't get a blood pressure reading. She leaned down, kissed Dad's head and said, "Go on. Your girls are fine. It's time."

I climbed up onto the bed beside him, took his hand in mine and spoke into his ear. "It's okay, Dad. I know you really left last night. Let this worn out old shell go. Just let go."

Becky was holding his other hand. We were loving on the Wisest Man in the Universe. We were smiling and congratulating him and saying over and over again, "Thank you, Dad! We love you so much!"

Mom got there, took Becky's place by his side and bent down to kiss him.

I could feel his heart, beating wildly beneath my fingertips. He was gasping for air.
He was working too hard.

I put an Ativan tablet in his cheek and shot a double dose of liquid morphine in to dissolve it.

"Is it time for morphine?" my sister Flea asked. "Isn't it too early?"

I looked up at Diane. She was smiling. "You go, girl!" she said. "You really are Cherry Ames!"

"Becky, it doesn't matter about the time with the morphine," I said.

"It doesn't? Why?"

They don't call Becky the Queen of Denial for nothing. There she was, celebrating Dad's leaving and wondering why weren't worried about giving his morphine too early.

Dad's respirations eased, then slowed, and finally stopped.

I realized I could no longer feel his strong heart beating.

It just stopped. One second beating, the next not.

When I removed Dad's oxygen cannula, Becky said, "Don't! He needs that!"

I looked at Diane, saw her slight nod, and looked back at my sister. "Honey, he's gone. Even if he wasn't, keeping the oxygen going now would be cruel. But look, he really is gone."

"Check him!" Becky told Diane. "I have to know officially. I want him checked."

But she knew. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, even though she was smiling.

"Oh, my sister," she cried. "We done good!"

"Yeah," I said, grinning back at her. "We Fleas, we loved him swell!"

Diane raised up and began to ask, "What time..."

"12:30," I said.

"That was the most peaceful, wonderful death I've ever attended," she said. "You girls are something else!"

But I was thinking- wasn't it somehow strangely appropriate that the angel from the elevator turned out to be the one who guided us through Dad's final minutes?

Becky still says angels look like Christmas card figures. She says they only wear wings for special occasions.

I beg to differ.

The angel I saw wore a stethoscope and a black and white striped shirt.


Kim said...

I read this earlier but couldn't comment then. You know how I feel about this matter Nancy. I agree with you, You done good.

Chrissy said...

Hi again Nancy, what a lovely story. Your story was so simular to our mothers passing, but 2 of my sisters reminded me of yours and my sister Diane and I of you. Double the fleas, her poor nurses. After I wiped my tears off the keyboard I called Kim and told her what a beautiful story it was. By the way thank you for getting so excited about meeting me, I felt like a celebrity.

Elizabeth said...


I know I'm a little late to this, but, what a nice story. I am sorry for your loss, but, I'm glad that things went so well.

My mother had a hospice angel as well. She told us the morning before she died that it was "time to go". She didn't go fast, and, day turned into night.

Her breathing was very steady for hours and we waited. I got up to walk around and ended up talking to a nurse.

I had never met him before, but, we hit it off and immediately began talking about deep things.

I excused myself from the conversation and he said, "Oh, I know your mother I took care of her last night, I enjoyed her company. I'll come back to the room with you to see her."

When we got there, he said, "Wait, don't leave the room, it's almost time." She was gone less than 2 minutes later.

That man whom I had never met, brought me back into that room just in time. I think she didn't want my dad and I to be by ourselves and chose him to help us.