Families gnaw on pizza crusts. Heavy doors slam visitors in with their loved ones, while smokers head out for sustenance. Teenagers throw fastballs in the common room. Their forced, irreverent laughs bounce off floral upholstery. Hospice nurses move about, mission- focused. They are lenient with those who are grieving.
Lillian and I stop short in the foyer as we hit the din. The end, the fast- moving part of dying, is sucking up the serenity that normally lies like a fog over the Mandarin House. It seems tonight, there is more than one patient calling it quits.
Lilly, who normally wags her way around Hospice of the Chesapeake, lets out a single, puzzled “woof.”
A staffer looks up, frowning.
“You have to go outside.”
“Of course,” I answer, sinking at the notion. Woofing is not allowed.
Cricket whirrs past us, looking up but barely meeting my gaze. “It’s just so busy tonight,” she says softly.
She whips her tiny frame into the office. As we turn to go, a familiar, dark- haired woman comes quickly around the corner, looking past me. “He’s gone,” she says, beating us to the porch.
We join her, because this was where we have to go.
“Would you like us to sit with you for a moment?” I ask.
“No. My husband just died.” And then I remember. I’d seen them, two weeks before. He’d been doing well, fully dressed, sitting up and ready to go home. I also remember he’d enjoyed visiting with Lillian, but the woman didn’t like dogs. Feeling helpless, I move on to my car, Lilly jumping in the back. I walk back in, wondering if there was something I can do. Cricket passes me again, this time grabbing me in a brief, tight hug. “Thank you.” She says slowly, so I’d hear. Then she moved on.
I’d done exactly nothing.
Sometimes you can just feel the good.
I met Cricket early on in our visits. It was a much quieter night, and Lilly and I visited mostly with her and the other nurses. She told me she used to be a post-op nurse for joint replacement and spine surgery patients. Born in Incheon, South Korea, she was adopted by Caucasian parents when she was three months old and raised in Middle River Maryland. And she told me about Barney McLovin’, her Great Dane.
He was a Blue Mantle Merle and weighed 179 pounds. “I could walk with him at midnight through the mall parking lot. No one would bother us. He stayed right next to me- I didn’t even use a leash.” Not that a leash would have helped. Barney clearly more than doubled her weight. She showed me pictures. His big, spotted, debonair face charmed the Facebookery.
“He died when he was only four and a half years old,” she told me through tears. “We tried everything to save him.”
She scratched Lillian’s neck. Be the Barney, I think.
I also noticed on Cricket’s Facebook page, a man in a wheelchair. She tells me that’s her husband, Dean.
Cricket believes God brought her to Hospice because she was going to need some practice at losing people. Her elderly parents were beginning to fail. There was Barney. Her best friends are between 50 and 70 years old.
And there is Dean.
It happened when he was young, one summer day in 1983. He was swimming with his brother and dove into shallow water. He’d done the same thing the day before but the tide had gone out. He’s been a paraplegic ever since.
They met online. He is 20 years her senior.
“I just fell in love with his eyes,” she told me.
I just cannot get my head around all the caretaking.
They’ve been thinking of getting a Ridgeback. Lillian knows and flaunts herself whenever she sees Cricket. I tempt her with pictures of Lilly and Delilah together. But she says they’re waiting, because of her parents’ declining health.
And then suddenly her father died. He was okay that morning. He died that night.
I asked if she was right – if Hospice had helped prepare her to lose someone close.
She said he was battling cancer but died suddenly of a heart attack. So while she was somewhat unprepared for the moment, she’d had important conversations with him – like about taking care of her mom if he died. She told him to not be afraid of dying – Hospice taught her that death is “a new amazing journey into incomprehensible peace.” She said, “God promised to never forsake us and bringing me to Hospice was His way of keeping His promise.”
But the way I see it, The Big Guy isn’t just keeping his promise to Cricket. He’s keeping his promise through Cricket- to her dad. And to Dean. And to Hospice. And to Lillian, and Delilah and me.
Cricket with her dad and husband.