THE LAST STOP (A Hospice Story)
An all too familiar sight; the red fire department ambulance approaching, coming to a stop in front of HopeWest, our local hospice care center. I’ve seen it many times before; a loved one taken out of the back of the ambulance on a stretcher, face to the sky, eyes closed. They are carefully and lovingly wheeled into the entrance of the building, family at their side; a one-way journey - their "Last Stop."
No one could have ever prepared me for my Mom’s last stop three years ago, March 13, 2017.
My Father died at the age of 37 when I was 10 years old. We were living in southern California. My Mother, Helen Margaret Cappetto, took on the role of a Mother and a Father and moved us three kids to Grand Junction, Colorado where we’ve been ever since.
WINNING IS LOSING -
My Mom was healthy most of her life. Her greatest battle was being overweight. She even conquered that at the age of 82 by losing 80 pounds. She looked and felt great!! We were all so proud of her. She wrote a small handbook, “Winning is Losing," and was featured on the local news channel. What an inspiration my Mother was!!
In January 2011, the doctor found a large mass on one of my Mother’s ovaries.
Upon hearing this dreaded news I remember vividly how fear gripped me. She ended up having a 6 pound tumor removed and in two days was out of the hospital doing great. This was just before her 83rd birthday.
My Mom always looked great for her age and of course I wanted her to live forever. I would kiddingly say that she would outlive me.
POST OFFICE -
My Mom worked almost 20 years at our local post office downtown. When she began she worked out on the docks late at night. It was so tiring that one Christmas she almost quit. She literally was doing work that most men working at the post office would struggle to do. I so admire the strength of my Mom and her taking care of us three children until we were old enough to be on our own.
My Mom had fallen in her home several times in late January and early February 2017. Upon her last incident I decided she should go and be seen at the emergency room at a local hospital. She spent a week at Community Hospital where she was diagnosed with lymphoma and a cardiac problem. We had no idea there was a valve problem in her heart. She declined seeing an oncologist or a heart specialist and chose to go home.
I believe my Mom wanted to go to Heaven. She was ready. She started getting her affairs in order several years prior. It used to bother me. She even wrote her obituary which I found hard to look at. I never gave thought that one day my son Timothy, would be reading her obituary at her memorial service. I don’t think one can ever be prepared for the death of a parent.
March 13, 2017 was a Monday. I had spent the night with her. This was to be her last night in her home. My brother, John, and I would switch off being with her at night. My sister, Teresa loved my Mom dearly and would come everyday to be with her, helping her out around the house, fixing meals and going to the store for her. Although we had some home health care workers checking in on her during the day, the nights were the worst. It was now very difficult helping to manage her breathing and getting her to the bathroom and back. It was extremely hard for me to see my Mom in this condition. I truly believe she hastened this whole process so as not to be a burden on us kids who truly loved her.
SNOWBALLS IN JULY -
I was extremely grateful my brother was able to provide her a new home for the last years of her life. She had been there since 2001. One of my fondest memories with my Mom was coming over on a regular basis to visit with her in her home. We especially enjoyed going out on her small back patio when the weather was warmer and talking, watching and listening to the birds and admiring her amazing snowball bush. I snapped a photo of this bush, sent it to the local paper and they published it. I called it, “Snowballs in July.” What a great memory!
It brought me much joy to be with her and to take her shopping occasionally at City Market on Thursdays. My brother mainly took her shopping, but the times I was able to be with her were cherished moments. This will always be one of my best memories.
My Mom was Lithuanian. She was so particular and had her hand written shopping list in one hand and her store coupons in the other. I got a kick helping her find some of the most bizarre off brand items. It made grocery shopping with her all the more fun and exciting. She would take me to the deli section and always introduce me to the workers behind the counter and ask for her usual fried chicken and potatoes which would be one of her meals that week.
She drove her own car I believe until age 85 or 86. She was a great driver and enjoyed her leased vehicles which I helped her get every three years. After her driving days were over I enjoyed taking her to get her hair and nails done. That was something I know she enjoyed very much. The first picture in this blog of her was taken Easter week 2016 in my car after having her hair done. Mom was looking good and stylish for sure.
MARCH 13, 2017 -
The hospice nurse called on the morning of March 13. There was one opening at the care center and she wanted to admit my Mom for a couple days to help get her breathing under control. I immediately consented because if she were to go anywhere for some managed care, I would want it to be at HopeWest. As much as we loved my Mom, we were no longer able to care for her at night anymore. My sister and brother agreed and we called for the transport. My Mom was barely eating and was losing weight. It was time.
Like a well-written script I knew what would happen next. As we awaited the transport, the mood in the room was bittersweet...one of hope, yet concerned. The city ambulance pulled up and backed into my Mom's driveway. The loud beeping noise of the vehicle backing up rang throughout the neighborhood. I wondered if the neighbors were watching.
The ambulance attendants came to the door and were introduced to my Mom. I remember them being very pleasant and friendly. Mom was lively and spry as always at almost 89 years of age. They carefully got my Mom ready for the short ride to the care center. I remember thinking how happy I was to have my Mom going to a place that would take good care of her. HopeWest held a special place in my heart and I often volunteered to play the piano there. Several times, my Mom and sister would come and listen to me play. It was one of the joys in my life playing for the families and staff at HopeWest.
It was now time to go. I felt a sense of relief getting in my vehicle and following the red fire department transport. Here I was, like so many local families before and after, driving to our local hospice care center.
It was a somber drive, only 5-7 minutes from her home. We pulled up to the care center. The ambulance on cue stopped in front of the building. The back door opened, they took my Mom out on a stretcher like I had seen many times before. With white blankets wrapped tightly around her, she looked face-ward to the sky and was taken inside the front doors. They passed the piano I used to play. With us kids at her side she was taken to her room. In our minds we hoped this would only be for a few days, but as it turned out, sadly and painstakingly for us this was to be her “Last Stop.”
I will never forget what I said to my Mom after she was all settled in her bed resting comfortably. I sat by her side and remember saying, “Mom, this the best place to be this side of Heaven.” She smiled real big and said, “Yes.”
My Mother's tenure at HopeWest was short, only 11 days. Her level of consciousness and responsiveness declined after a couple of days. The medications began to take effect. Thinking back now it was very sad to see and I always wonder if I could’ve done more to prolong her life there. The staff at HopeWest did a great job but I felt so helpless. Seeing my Mom decline in such a short period of time was extremely difficult.
On the morning of March 23, 2017, I went to see her early, around 8 AM. She’d been having some breathing difficulties during the past few days with bouts of anxiety. It’s difficult to write about. The memories are still very painful.
When I entered her room she looked pale. She was laying on her side. Her breathing was labored and very shallow. My brother John and his wife, Carla, was there with me. My sister, Teresa, joined us later.
Two weeks prior I had gone to her house and sang a couple of homecoming songs, “I’ll Fly Away,” and a song I wrote 30 years ago about Heaven called, “The New Jerusalem.” I believe it brought peace and comforted the whole family that day.
On my Mom's second day at HopeWest, I took out my iPhone and videotaped what would be her last interview. As a filmmaker and a storyteller I just needed this moment and I’m glad I did record it. It really brings me comfort now, three years later.
Never in a million years could I have ever pictured myself at my Mom's bedside that late March morning, watching her take her last breath on this earth. It still doesn’t seem real. I’ve never felt so helpless in all of my life. Like I said I wasn’t prepared. How can you be? When my beloved dog, Davey, died in 2009, I wrote an article titled, “Death Brings Out the Reality of Life.” I remember crying uncontrollably for my dog.
When my Mother took her last breath I cried uncontrollably again. I was inconsolable. I must’ve cried 1000 tears on her pillow that morning with my hand resting lovingly on her shoulder. This lasted almost 90 minutes. I remember crying, “Momma, Momma...my Momma.”
As one dear soul told me so aptly after losing a parent, I was now forced to “surf the uncharted waters of losing a parent.” How those words rang out true in the following weeks and months ahead. I was lost. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I started journaling and haven’t stopped. Perhaps these notes someday will comfort the next person who loses their parent or loved one.
It seems like my Mom is just in the other room. I struggle with the words, “dying” or “death.” She’s in Heaven now with my Dad, her sister and their parents. I know I will see her soon when my time comes. We will all be together again. For my Mom, though, this was her, “Last Stop.”
I visit my Mom's grave often at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado. My Father served in the military during the Korean War and we as a family are proud to have her buried there. My Father is buried at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in California.
In closing, I’d like to share a passage of scripture out of First Thessalonians. Please allow this to bring you comfort as it has brought me many times. God bless you!!
"16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. 18 Wherefore comfort one another with these words." (I Thessalonians 4:16-18).
MY BEAUTIFUL MOM -
May 28, 1928 - March 23, 2017
I pray God‘s blessings upon you this day and that His presence will be revealed to you as you reach out to Him by faith.
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