A time for renewal: A retired physician keeps things fresh

June 10, 2011

The author describes letting go as his wife passed away, and how he picked up the pieces in the wake of her loss.

Tell her it's all right to go," the hospice nurse whispered.

I leaned farther over the lowered side rail and glanced again toward the hospice nurse standing near the foot of the bed.

The hospice nurse repeated, this time in a slightly louder whisper, "You can tell her it's all right to go."

I placed my lips against Rita's ear. It was still warm, slightly moist. My voice was hoarse; the surrounding silence made it louder than I intended: "You can go now, darling. It's all right to leave."

I thought she gave a deeper breath, like a protracted sigh, before her breathing slowed again. I climbed farther onto the bed and held my cheek against hers, feeling its slight movement with each breath. A few minutes later, her breathing stopped.

A NEW PHASE OF LIFE

That was 9 years ago, 2 years after we moved from Los Angeles to Oakland to live in a retirement complex not far from our son. Piedmont Gardens had close to 300 residents in independent living apartments, with roughly another 150 in assisted living and skilled nursing. When we first arrived, Rita could still get around on her own; although she had already begun to have memory difficulties and an uncharacteristic lack of motivation, both of which suggested early Alzheimer's disease.

When we arrived at Oakland International Airport, she was in tears and became more confused than ever. As my son and I steered her to his car and then to my future home, I became resigned to the thought that my active life was over.

I was wrong. I had embarked on a new phase of life that was to become as rich and fulfilling as any in the preceding 73 years.

MEMBERS OF AN EXTENDED FAMILY

Before Rita died, while we were living in Peidmont Gardens, we were never exposed to the isolation that I had so often seen develop in my own patients during their terminal illnesses. In those last 2 years of her life, we had become members of an extended family. Even after I left her room in skilled nursing for the final time, I had to run a phalanx of hugs from fellow residents, some of whom joined me in my tears. A memorial service was being planned the next day.

My situation wasn't unique. Among my widening expanse of new friends, almost all either had been through the trial of losing a mate or were aware that they too would be facing similar pain in the foreseeable future.

Rita's parents had had fine voices, which Rita remembered as high points from her childhood. She herself had a pleasant voice. During her progressive loss of cognitive and physical function, her desire to sing persisted, whereas all other motivations wasted away. Other residents recognized this, and she was invited to join the Vespers choir. Every Sunday, I would take her-using a cane, then a walker, and finally a wheelchair-to Vespers services. The other choir members supported her, and while she sang, her face would light up with the same glow I remembered from our wedding photo 50 years earlier.