1st A Time For Every Purpose

‘Confirm 9.00 am?’

Kim met Nicki’s eyes. Leaning over the inert body, they checked timepieces, and nodded in unison. No longer the flutter of a pulse. Nicki scribbled a notation on a chart at the end of the bed.

Their patient, Merle, who they’d tended for the past month had passed away.

I remember that day, a Tuesday, six weeks ago. We’d been advised to gather. Our niece, Dee, son, Dan, his wife, Shona, my husband and I had been, in turn, agonizing over Merle’s gasping, halting breaths for an interminable forty-eight hours. Wanting those terrible sounds to end, yet not wanting…

Now she’d succumbed to her fate.

The palliative care nurses swung into their well-rehearsed routines. They acted with reverence, straightening her clothes and bedding, combing her hair away from her forehead. Murmuring kind words, even then… She looked peaceful, her face relaxed and calm, her suffering over.

After multiple goodbyes, we relatives had withdrawn to give them space, not meaning to stare, but transfixed: shocked, even though the outcome had been inevitable.

Somewhat of an anti-climax–the few weeks of uncertainty, of stark MRIs revealing metastasizing cancer, multiple medications, and escalating pain management, were now at a full stop… Merle was silent.

Staff, nursing and domestic, gathered outside that room, that special room with a sad primal purpose: end-of-life. Word spreads fast in a hospital. Eventually we left the room to weep more, to accept condolences and express gratitude to those who had gathered. Surreal moments on auto-pilot…

Mixed emotions: sorrow, sadness, of course, relief, release, remorse… Intense reactions to process via gloomy thoughts and daydreams in the future.

However, the present was the imperative.

Practicalities prevailed. We were asked, discreetly, if we wanted to clear the room, or the staff would. No hurry… We packed Merle’s few items in a suitcase I’d let her borrow the evening before her Cairns Hospital admission, when we’d had no inkling of the dire developments awaiting…

At that stage she had jaundice and a swelling under her ribs–a mystery blockage. Tests were called for. We drove her to Cairns–for the dreadful diagnosis. Several days later, an ambulance returned her to our local hospital—no treatment, no oncology plan, radiation nor chemo, only Endone tablets, Ketone patches and morphine infusions… The shock was sharp. Aggressive and terminal were words etched suddenly onto our psyches.

The medical team had pledged to treat her with dignity and alleviate any pain.  That pact had been honoured.

Now we needed to consider next steps, accept responsibilities, convey the news, compose newspaper notices and thank-you notes.  Run households. Plan a funeral.

One of my tasks was choosing Merle’s final outfit.

There was scant time to mourn deeply, except during wakefulness in dark early-morning hours.

Funeral directors with magic methods played their part–all went smoothly that day, a small private funeral. For me, flashes of images and sounds linger. Sun streaming through plate glass windows onto the polished timber coffin, glorious native flowers cascading, my husband’s voice quaking as he welcomed relatives and friends to farewell his younger sister, Alice and Connor, our grandchildren at university in Brisbane, flying north to act as pall-bearers along with Merle’s brother and three nephews, Connor strumming his guitar softly as petals were placed on the coffin. Hugs and heartfelt words of comfort.

I delivered the eulogy, surprisingly dry-eyed—so easily it could have been the reverse.

A time for every purpose, under heaven…

A time to be born and a time to die…

The purported words of King Solomon in the Old Testament’s Ecclesiastes proffered comfort. Mourners might gain consolation with the message that what was to be, was.

Merle would have liked her funeral.

Especially when it closed with Celine Dione’s glorious voice ringing out with what friends later told me was Merle’s favourite song on her car’s sound system–a chance selection, a perfect fit.

Merle’s abiding legacy for me is stoicism. She’d lived alone for years–a failed marriage, no children. Her reaction to that sobering news delivered in a ward in a high tower in Cairns? ‘That’s Life.’ No more. I’d been the one requiring a handkerchief.

During my hospital visits, we’d shared light-hearted moments. We’d chatted, even laughed out loud. Our relationship deepened. No tears, no bewailing her fate. Evidence before my eyes daily–dying with dignity.

Twice she’d refused the offer of a private room, choosing to befriend staff and other patients as her world shrank around her. I placed a sign above her bed, ‘Welcome visitors. Please wake me. I’m only dozing’. She was chuffed.

But soon sleep became her solace. Without her approval, one Saturday, I removed it.

On Sunday morning she was moved.

A key date in my diary: the Tuesday my dear sister-in-law Merle took her final breath.

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