Monday, August 11, 2008


Her dream was to live in a clean new home.

Vada was one of those country women who were not afraid of anything including death. When I first met her, I asked her, "How are you doing, now that you are admitted into hospice care?"

Her answer was that of a person who accepted the truth of her own death. "I'm going to die. I know that. It may be tomorrow or it may be next week. Only God knows for sure, ain't no doctor or hospic (sp) that can stop it from coming. There's just no telling. When your time comes, your time comes. Can't do anything about it, no-how." Then she smiled and said, "You just gotta be ready."

I thought to myself with a smile, "Hospic", I haven't heard that mispronunciation of hospice since moving to Georgia. A lot of Louisiana Country folks, called hospice by strange names, such as hospic, or hostage, or hostile.

Vada became a hospice patient suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. She had become weak and unable to move about, except to walk around the outside of her house, which she tried to do at least once a day. She told me, it was a good thing her house was so small or she couldn't make it around the whole place. She would take her walk early in the morning, leaving off her oxygen for a short period of time. By the time she returned from her exercise lap she would be shaking and sweating and would have to lie down and rest for several hours before she could get up again.

Her little rented house was a frame, wooden two-bedroom place, painted bright yellow. It sat off a secondary road; up a dirt driveway and under two giant oak trees whose large umbrella-like branches covered the whole yard both front and back. I sometimes worried that Vada might trip over the big roots that protruded out of the ground and ran across the yard. Some of the largest roots were threatening the foundation of the house.

Vada was a strange looking woman. She reminded me of Popeye. Her cheeks were puffed out and she couldn't wear her teeth, so her lower gums curved up almost touching her nose. She would sit up on the edge of the bed, with her thin bony legs dangling off the side. You could see she was bow-legged. When I did get to watch her walk a little, she had a swagger and a little limp.

She was only fifty-five years old, but the years were hard on her and she looked much older. Her husband was missing from the home. She told me he walked out the door three years earlier. She hasn't seen nor heard of him since.

Two of her grandchildren lived in the house with her. One was sixteen and the other had just turned eighteen. Both had little babies. One was in diapers and the other needed them, but ran about without anything on most of the time. Vada did the majority of the baby-sitting while the girls were working or looking for work.

Neither of them could hold a job over a month at a time. The sixteen-year-old had a husband but, he was in the county jail for armed robbery. The eighteen-year-old had a boy friend, the father of the little one but, he left the state and moved to Alabama. That was the last she heard of him. Vada said, "He's probably living with my old man."

The grandchildren were the primary caregivers, but the "care" was lacking. The ironing board was never down. Piles of clothing that needed washing lay on the floor. The sink was always full of dirty dishes. The garbage cans always sat on the back porch full and stinky of dirty diapers . Vada's bed was always in disarray, and her sheets were stained gray.

Vada never complained. "I won't be putting up with this mess very long when I die," she said, "I'll be in a much better place prepared by Jesus himself." She was not a church-going Baptist. Her faith was simple and to the point. "When God wants me, he knows where I am."

There are some patients that tell me that they do not fear death. But I get the feeling that they are saying that for my benefit as a minister rather then to express their own true feelings. Some, I believe, are saying they are not afraid to die, hoping to convince themselves. That was not true for Vada. I felt all along that she didn't have any fear of her own death. Looking at her surroundings, I couldn't blame her for wanting to go, the sooner the better.

Vada passed through her shadows of death and looked them in the eye. She did not fear the shadows nor did she fear the valley. She looked forward to her ending, knowing that it was a process that would bring her to a new spiritual beginning.

I was talking to her one day, and asked, "Where did you get your fearlessness about your death?"

She replied, "I can't remember just when. I've always felt this way."

"Is there anything at all that you fear about dying?" I asked.

"I fear for my grandchildren, and I wonder what will happen to my pet spider." (She had a giant tarantula spider that she would play with sometimes.) She let out a laugh. "No one will want it, so I guess it could be buried with me." Still laughing, she showed me the spider, which she had in a small cage on the little night stand next to her bed where she could feed it and give it water.

North Georgia gets a variety of weather. Although it is not near the Gulf Coast, at times the hurricane winds reach the foothills of the mountains. One evening in September a hurricane out of the Gulf of Mexico sent some strong winds all the way up to North Georgia. The storm lasted all night with tremendously high winds and inches of heavy blowing rain, causing the electricity to go off and flooding the lower land. The next morning I went to visit Vada to see how she fared during the storm. She didn't. Or should I say her house didn't.

As I drove up the driveway I saw that one of the giant oaks had crushed the house. Its massive branches had cut the house in two. The road was muddy and puddles of water stood everywhere. It was still raining lightly. I beeped my horn to see if anyone was still inside the house, but I was sure that no was at home. The house was in a mess. One end where the bedroom once stood had been crushed to the ground. I felt sure someone must have been hurt when that tree fell. I called in and reported to the hospice office before I drove to the local hospital.

When I arrived at the hospital I asked the admission office which room Vada was in. The clerk said she didn't have any patient named Vada. I mentioned that her house had been destroyed by the previous night's storm. The hospice hadn't heard from her and I was worried about her. The clerk asked a passing nurse if there was any patient fitting Vada's description brought in the night before.

"Oh," said the nurse, "that must have been the woman who lives in the yellow house on the hill off of old highway five. She was in last night after her house was demolished. She wasn't hurt, so we released her. She went to the shelter at the First Baptist Church."

"Thanks," I said and hurried off to the church.

I arrived at the church but, the shelter was closed. I talked to the church's secretary who told me that there had not been enough people to keep the shelter open. They had no idea where Vada was staying. They weren't even sure if she had spent the night in their center. I called our hospice office and they hadn't heard from her either. Where was Vada?

The next day Vada called the office. She was staying with her sister-in-law, Fran.
Fran heard about the house being destroyed and found Vada and took her in, spider and all. She lived alone in a small apartment, directly across the street from the funeral home. Fran knew about hospice because her first husband had been a hospice patient who had died in the program two years earlier.

I went to the apartment to visit with Vada and renewed my acquaintance with Fran, who now became Vada's primary caregiver. Vada told me that the kids were alright, that they were staying with friends.

She went on to say, "It was a miracle that no one was killed in the house. During the storm my granddaughter got up around 2:00 am to check on her baby who was in another room. When she picked him up, the tree fell, right over her bedroom, completely destroying and crushing it." Vada was convinced that God blessed them and was looking out for her and her children and the grandbabies.

I visited with Vada and Fran every week for the next month. Vada was attempting to find another place to stay because Fran's apartment was too small and Fran's nineteen-year-old son kept coming by to spend the night and slept on the couch. He introduced Vada to one of his friends who said he was renovating a doublewide mobile home and he would be willing to rent it to her when it was finished.

Vada had a dream of living in a nice place. She was determined not to allow her kids and her grandchildren to move in with her and mess it up. I asked her one-day, "Who is going to be your caregiver, if you live alone in the trailer?"

She said, "I'll figure that out when the time comes." Then she quickly added, "If the time ever comes." The friend was dragging his feet on the renovation, and it was going to take much longer than anticipated. Every visit, I heard the same story, "It will be just a little longer."

Vada never lost hope of moving to her new home. Months passed and her hope became a Christmas wish. Her health was getting a little worse with time. She and Fran continued to get along with each other. Fran enjoyed her company. Vada was happy about the present arrangements except for the son who visited almost every night, taking over the couch in the small living room. She kept telling me that she was sure that she would be moved into her new home before Christmas.

December 23, hospice received a call from Fran, "Vada died that night around midnight. Her son had just come in the apartment and found her on the living room floor, dead." He called 911, but it was too late. Fran said, "Vada is at the funeral home across the street. The funeral would be the day after Christmas."

Hospice was not notified until well after the fact. Our staff, chaplains, aides, social workers and nurses were all out visiting our patients for a pre-Christmas visit to bring them gifts that our volunteers made for them. The secretary for hospice knew that one of our nurses was scheduled to visit Vada that morning. She immediately paged him to tell him about her death. His pager was not working for some reason.

The nurse reported the event at the next team meeting as one of his most embarrassing episodes in his young nursing life. He had forgotten to turn his pager on that morning. He had made several visits to his patients, who were in the shadow of death.

He reported, "I was feeling quite good. Most of my patients were in good spirits and loved the gifts from the volunteers. I was playing Christmas carols in my car as I drove around, feeling a little of the Christmas spirit. I stopped at Vada's apartment, and noticed a lot of cars across the street at the mortuary. I thought to myself, too bad for that family, it's almost Christmas." He went on, "I went to the front door and knocked.

It took a while for someone to answer. Fran's son opened the door. I asked, if Vada was up and said I had a present for her."

Wiping the sleep from his eyes, the son drawled, "I don't think so." Pointing across the street to the funeral home he said, "She's over there. Go and see for yourself." He learned his lesson in patient care: always have your beeper turned on.

I was visiting another patient when the secretary paged me. She told me that Vada had died during the night and her body was at the funeral home. I told her I would go on over to see what was going on and offer my condolences on behalf of the hospice.

I was about twenty minutes away from the funeral home. As I drove, I began to think about my relationship with Vada. I remembered her early statements about not fearing death I also remembered her looking like Popeye and laughed to myself about that image. I remembered her comments that she would be out of that mess someday.

Then I recalled my recent visits. She talked about her new doublewide and how wonderful it would be to move in at Christmas time. She had dreams of moving into a clean place that had plenty of space where she wouldn't be a problem for anyone. She told me, "My spider and I will really love it." On my last visit she said that even if she didn't get to move in by Christmas, planning the move was half the fun.

As I drove into the parking lot at the funeral home, I couldn't help thinking that she is no longer in the dark shadows of death, she has indeed moved to a much brighter place than a doublewide trailer. She was in her own place that God had prepared for her. I smiled to myself; I wonder what happened to the spider?

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