On the pilgrim way: ‘We are all dying, but he is dying sooner’
Sheila Maxey arranges a difficult homecoming
My husband, Kees, is home from hospital. In preparation we cleared furniture out of our TV room to make room for the hospital bed and also a hoist. We cleared shelves and a table for the carers’ equipment, borrowing a clothes horse from a friend whose husband had just died at home. We kept a couple of chairs and bought a table to go over the bed. We got rid of the large square of carpet so the bed and the hoist could move easily. His homecoming felt very special, and our daughter in Holland had sent a huge bunch of tulips for the occasion. They took their place on the mantelpiece alongside all the get well cards. But Kees did not, and does not, think he is at home.
He is delighted to be out of hospital, and he often reflects on the familiar pictures on the wall. He remembers we bought the painted cloth of Lake Tana on a trip to Ethiopia and that a grateful Ugandan student gave him the two screen prints of people with Ankoli cattle when he was Director of the Africa Educational Trust. But at some point each day he will either comment favourably on this holiday house we are in, or suggest it is time to go home now.
Kees is dying. Of course, we are all dying, but he is dying sooner rather than later; perhaps a matter of weeks, or a few months. My pilgrim way is no longer a rollercoaster but rather a slowgoing path clogged with daily detail: waiting for the next visit of the carers to make him comfortable, counting the teaspoons of food and the sips of water and trying not to worry about how little, reading aloud articles from his beloved Guardian and finding them surprisingly good, coming down in the night to try to drag is feet back into bed.
I think my path is a bit like a green lane – confined but also contained. I can’t go out unless someone sits with Kees, and I have many loving offers of help and support. As a green lane is often a green tunnel of overarching branches blocking off the view, so the terrible events in Ukraine and the perilous state of our little local church are somehow the other side of the hedge. And, perhaps for the first time in my life, I know exactly what I am about for the next few weeks or months. No doubts and fears about priorities or choices.
So many family visitors and also friends want to come and see Kees. He is a much-loved man. Their grief brings mine to the surface. Kees remains as he has always been, in spite of the dementia, cheerful and calm. If he is awake, he welcomes visitors with a smile and seems interested in all they have to tell him. But after half an hour, he will turn to me and say: ‘I think it is time to go home now.’
And I have to accept that he is going home and leaving me behind.
Sheila Maxey is a member of Brentwood United Reformed Church, Essex
This article was published in the May 2022 edition of Reform