Maybe we should blame it on the full moon.
The phone call came late last Wednesday – the decision had been made to transfer Dagmar to hospice. The decision itself wasn’t a surprise – she’d been failing for some time, and she had made the decision herself that she wanted no more treatment. That said, timing is always a shock.
I was engaged to speak to the Kittery clubs Thursday night, and Frank had planned to come with me, so afterward we stayed over, and instead of returning home on Friday we continued south to Amherst. We arrived at the hospice around 10:00 Friday morning — Lars, Chris and long-time friend Cindy were already there, and Mark came in a few hours later. At first Dagmar was non-responsive — mostly curled in the bed, breathing heavily. But Cathy got her attention, and when she realized that the entire family was around her, she woke up, smiled, spoke a few words, and was clearly very happy.
The was very communicative for about 90 minutes, but then the pain took over; morphine was reapplied, and she went to sleep. The afternoon was mostly one of hand-holding, and at about 7:30 p.m. we were thinking about calling it a day when suddenly we heard a fire alarm in the far distance.
Now, I should add that Friday was an extremely hot day — temps in the ’90s — and when we had taken a break for dinner the restaurant had (briefly) lost power/air conditioning. The idea of a power shortage wasn’t surprising, but none of us were thinking about a fire. However, the alarm was followed by a fireman who suddenly burst into Dagmar’s room and said that he didn’t want to alarm us, but that there was a fire in the kitchen (on the other wing of the hospice) and that the entire building would have to be evacuated.
He took one end of Dagmar’s bed; I took the other, and we rolled her out into the parking lot. I found a lawn chair and sat down next to her, speaking to her, while he went back for two more patients. By this time more firemen had arrived. From the parking lot I could see what hadn’t been apparent from inside the building — billowing smoke from the kitchen, the strong smell of burning; clearly this fire was the real thing.
By the time we had the three beds in the parking lot, the sergeant came over and ordered all three to be moved further from the building, and then further still. Lars and I pitched in — it helped that this was a hospice, and none of the ladies were attached to the multiplicity of tubes typical of a hospital. It also helped that it was late in the day; if the sun had been burning down as it had been a few hours earlier it would have been quite a different story. From our new vantage point we could see other patients — those in wheelchairs rather than beds — safe in a screened-in gazebo on the front lawn.
At this point the ambulances started to arrive. The idea was to get each of the bedridden ladies into an ambulance where they would be air conditioned and where they could be kept safe until a decision was made as to where to transport them. A bus had also pulled up for the slightly more mobile patients plus family members. Someone unloaded casefuls of water, and the firemen and families all started hydrating.
Of course, this plan required more ambulances than Amherst had on hand, and so we were waiting for other equipment to arrive from nearby towns. By the time they did arrive, the lawn was teaming with firemen, policemen, family members and staff. Someone had gone back into the building to retrieve patient records. Cindy had a copy of Dagmar’s DNR order in her purse and wasn’t about to let it go.
Transferring Dagmar to the ambulance took all of us working in concert with the firemen, because every touch, every movement was painful to her. But in the event, she slept through it all.
By this time the heat-lightening had started, and the sky was punctuated with explosion after explosion of light. And there was a big full moon – someone said the biggest moon of the year was Thursday and Friday night.
We had thought that Dagmar would be transferred back to the hospital, but the decision was made to transfer all the patients together to another care facility. We eventually got the word, but we couldn’t follow the ambulance immediately – our car was behind all the emergency equipment in the parking lot. But eventually the driveway was clear, we got to the new facility, got Dagmar bedded down for the night, and left, exhausted, for our motel.
The phone call came early the next morning – Dagmar had died. Which means her last waking memories were the joy of her family surrounding her Friday morning. And which means that as the sky was exploding with heat lightening around her; as the first responders were dealing with the very real concern of an electrical fire in the kitchen, as the full moon was marking the passage of the planets, she was entering the next phase of her existence.
May it be so.