The blessings of end of life


After I took the call around 1 a.m. that did not come unexpectedly, I laid back in bed and said to Denise, “Well, I’m an orphan now.”

We each chuckled a bit, as I relayed the news that my mom had passed away peacefully in her sleep at Catholic Memorial Home. Millie was 95. It didn’t seem that long ago that I took the same call from the same place for my dad. That was late in 2017. Larry was 96.

The call last week was the end of a chapter in my life that had a long, good ride ­— for the most part. But the last 10 years or so, that chapter of my life became increasingly difficult — seemingly with each day that passed.

I’m not telling anyone who has cared for and ultimately lost an elderly parent anything they don’t already know. I just feel the need to share some of that journey, now that it has come to an end.

It is not a pleasant experience to watch people who were once so young and strong deteriorate mentally, physically, and at times Spiritually.

With dad, his mind slowly fell victim to what would become major dementia. Along that long agonizing road, the physical deterioration joined the fray. While that part of the journey was the worst for me, there were some blessing that arose from those times.

I got to know Larry better than I had in my previous 50 years. He had always been my hero and we always had a close bond, but I got to see him at his very lowest points, first physically and then as his mind faded. But during those times, in the seemingly countless hours in medical waiting rooms he shared things with me that he had never told me, maybe anyone. Some of the anecdotes were warm and humorous. And many, particularly his experiences aboard a U.S. destroyer in the South Pacific just after the devastation at Pearl Harbor, were horrific. Moments that haunted him for life, moments he kept inside all those years.

I felt honored that he confided in me, and my respect and love for him grew past what I didn’t think was possible.

His time at Catholic Memorial home in Fall River was bittersweet. He was confused and didn’t know why he was there, and why he was still alive. But the staff there was second-to-none in Larry’s care. Care that went beyond a job. It was care that was sincere, loving and comforting — to him and me. Larry rode the painful dementia train for nearly three years before it was evident that Hospice should become involved to assist with his end-of-life care. Dad had Steward Hospice and everyone there was fantastic beyond words.

Larry held on in a coma-like state for more than a week — a week when my brother Paul and I kept vigil with the little old guy. And through it all, the CMH staff and Hospice were at our sides. Larry passed away peacefully in his sleep in a warm, comfortable, room.

Father Mike Racine celebrated Larry’s funeral. He had already celebrated my youngest son’s funeral and my eldest daughter’s wedding. So it was only appropriate that he send dad off.

Larry was buried at Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne and the committal service was so uplifting. Two sailors flanked the casket standing perfectly still. “Taps” was played and being so near Otis Air National Guard Base, a fly-over coincidentally (?) occurred during “Taps.” The U.S. flag that draped his casket was meticulously folded and ceremoniously handed to me. I never felt so proud in my life.

Millie went through a couple of years with dad slipping into dementia mode. She endured suffering she kept to herself — that must be an old French Canadian thing, because they both adhered to that philosophy all their lives. When my brother and I detected the onset, we moved them out of an apartment that had been their dwelling place and comfort zone for more than 40 years. It was traumatic for dad and a relief for mom.

I got them into The Landmark in Fall River. Dad didn’t last one night there. He was found wandering the halls and ended up at Saint Anne’s Hospital. From there he went to CMH. Mom stayed at The Landmark for nearly five years, and she couldn’t have been treated any better by the staff there. She became a sort of landmark of The Landmark.

She would complain to me about things, but everyone I talked to there said she was a delight and a pleasure to be around — another French Canadian trait?

Millie established a friendship with Mary “Connie” Furtado there. They became like sisters and were pretty much inseparable. Remarkably, Connie celebrated her 100th birthday at The Landmark last August. After that, she showed signs of slowing down rather rapidly. Along with the fact that mom found a best friend in Connie, I was blessed to get to know Connie’s loving daughter, Holy Union Sister Beverly Furtado.

Connie passed away in early February, and that’s when Millie began her mental and physical decline. Never in my life had I seen the death of anyone affect my mom like Connie’s.

I relived some of Larry’s saga in the final few months of Millie’s life, and again it was the people around her who were vessels of support. The Landmark staff was awesome, as were the Sisters who reside there, and when mom went to Saint Anne’ Hospital for a few days, she was treated with respect, kindness and compassion.

Millie went from Saint Anne’s to Catholic Memorial Home, where Hospice immediately became involved. While at CMH for her final three days, I got to see a few of the staff who so lovingly cared for my dad. It was a comfort to get a hug from them and chat for a bit. In her short time there, the CMH staff was its usual awesome self.

This time it was Kindred Hospice that became involved with Millie’s end-of-life care. It was at this time when I received a special blessing though the words and listening of a Kindred nurse, Ann-Marie Carter. She and I sat in an empty CMH cafeteria as we got to know each other and talked about Millie and the time she had left. I mentioned earlier that Larry and I had a strong bond and that he was always my hero. But one odd fact was that I never mourned for Larry. I was so busy with Millie, things at home and at work, that I never once mourned my dad’s passing. Yet while talking with Ann-Marie, my emotions about Larry began to pour out. And she was there to absorb it all, telling me I was beginning to mourn the two of them at once.

It was a cathartic moment for me, and one I will never forget. Two days later Millie left this world to see Larry and Connie and her best friend and brother, Pete, the grandson she never met, and more.

Again Father Mike Racine was there for us, and it was a beautiful funeral Mass, not without its humors and hiccups on the way there. Millie joined Larry in Bourne. It’s nice to know after all these years, they own land on the Cape!

As has been the case for the last 10-12 years, still more people stepped up to be of comfort, humor and solace. The folks at the National Cemetery can’t be beat.

I never mentioned family during this column, but they, too, were there in moments of need. I thank them and love them. And I thank and love the people at Catholic Memorial Home, Saint Anne’s Hospital, The Landmark, Steward Hospice, and Kindred Hospice. You can take all the news about bad people doing bad things every day and file it where it belongs, because there is an army of good out there. I know — they have served me well. 

Rest in peace Larry and Millie, and Connie, too. You gave me so many blessings and brought people into my life that have done the same.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts