Life by the Spoonful

School of Medicine

Clothing with rhinestones declaring the owner’s personality were the brainchild and casualty of the early 2000’s. Or so I had thought. Mrs. Everett suggested that the trend was still alive and well.

She sat in her bed, propped up on a leopard-print body pillow and swaddled in a tie-die fleece, wearing a pale pink sweater with bright pink rhinestones that informed me she was “SASSY.” I appreciated the insight. The vast majority of my patients do not come with even a monosyllabic character summary, and when they do it is never self-declared. Rather, it is hearsay from the night nursing team, collateral from a family member, or lore that emerges from the chart as a sticky note that demands my attention in the top right of the screen. I never know if I should trust those things, but I will take Mrs. Everett’s word.

Mrs. Everett’s daughter hovers at the right side of her mother, a lifetime of teamwork and tenderness etched into her posture and rumpled clothes. I am sure there was more there as well: frustration, disappointment, misunderstanding, confusion. These things make up the space between mothers and daughters as much as the tender feelings. But in these hours the home only makes room for the tenderness. Everything else has skittered into the dimly-lit corners, not nearly a formidable-enough opponent for the “SASSY” mistress of the home.

Mrs. Everett remains silent, which is perfectly reasonable, but her daughter begins to fill the quiet air anxiously. It is a valiant attempt at normalcy. Customarily, when a guest comes into your home there is some kind of light conversation held. At least, that is true for Mrs. Everett’s daughter. It is less true for me. I am the guest who brings silence.

I have found more mercy in encouraging attempts at normalcy than suggesting that we have arrived at a more stoic normal, so I smile encouragingly. Mrs. Everett’s daughter brandishes her mobile phone like a sword and informs me that she is waiting for a call from the minister at her mother’s favorite church. Mrs. Everett has not attended mass there in years because it is far from the home. The minister is hesitant to lead a service for a congregant who has not been to mass in years.

I nod sympathetically, but I cannot assist her with that concern. I turn to something I can help with. My brief physical exam proves that Mrs. Everett’s breathing is slow and somewhat unpredictable. Her daughter informs me that it has been like this lately. She avoids my eyes, so I know I do not have to remind her that this is a sign that the end of Mrs. Everett’s life will be here soon. I say this anyway, and Mrs. Everett’s daughter winces but nods. I do not mean to be cruel. On the contrary, I intend to spare her some of the edge of shock that seems to always come with death, even though it is the only part of life we are all guaranteed.

I look around the room, giving Mis Everett’s daughter time to recover. Mrs. Everett’s hospital bed resides the living room. Mrs. Everett’s daughter wanted her mother to be the center of the home in her last days as she was during the rest of her life. The bed is surrounded by a constellation of end tables, each holding as many silver picture frames as can fit on their small, ebony surfaces. Every photo is aimed at Mrs. Everett, amplifying the warmth of their moments in her direction like tanning foil held up to the face on a warm day.

Some of the photos are what I expect. A younger and more vibrant version of Mrs. Everett with her children and grandchildren at weddings and baby showers. A few are unexpected. A “SASSY” woman in in a gondola in Venice, digging into a vat of paella in Spain, and grinning salaciously over the rim of a pair of rhinestone shades in front of the Egyptian pyramids. The rhinestones, it seems, have been a constant for her. Guessing by her appearance, some of these photos are from only several years ago, and others are from decades ago. A lifetime of “SASSY.”

I often remember my deceased patients in backless blue gowns surrounded by long-forgotten brochures about hospital services, trays of half-eaten food, and beeping IV pumps. Most of the time, this is the only way I know them. Herein lies the beauty of home hospice visits. I get to see patients as people in their own habitats. People are always more themselves in their own habitats. More “SASSY.” This is how I will always remember Mrs. Everett.

“There is a spoon for every place Mom went,” Mrs. Everett’s daughter informs me, somewhat suddenly. Communication can be like that when it happens near death, jolting and heaving like a toddler learning to walk. Mrs. Everett’s daughter pulls me from my mental revere, motioning behind me to a wall of spoons I have never noticed. There are hundreds of silver spoons mounted on the wall in neat rows. Each one advertises a travel destination. My eyes are drawn to one with the Italian flag on the handle and fake pasta twirled around the neck. A slight breeze comes in from the back porch, shifting some of the spoons enough that they tinkle against each other: an international wind chime.

“It’s incredible,” I remark. “Seems like a display you would see in a modern art museum. Did she make them?”

Mrs. Everett’s daughter smiles and nods through wet eyes and lashes. She abandons the mobile phone on the kitchen counter and joins me in front of the wall. “Mom always said it was the only way to digest life. Just like ice cream. By the spoonful.”