It was a Friday night when I received a call from my Uncle Paul who told me that my Aunt Jerry, who had end-stage Alzheimer’s disease, had suffered two seizures and a heart attack and was in the hospital.  With her condition, one might have expected that she might have died the next day.  She didn’t.  She lived through the weekend and was discharged on Sunday on hospice back to Kemper House, the Alzheimer’s facility.

Early that week, I was in another room at Kemper House on the phone when I got an urgent call from a cousin. I think it’s time, you better come.  I walked in the room and there was my uncle, his daughters, grandchildren and some other cousins gathered around the bed with hands on my aunt, all praying and crying.  It was reminiscent of a scene from a movie.

We did that for ten minutes, then twenty, and then realized she was not going to die at that time.  My cousin Cathy, her middle daughter, stood up and announced she was going to go to her hair appointment after all.  At the time, the rest of us thought that Cathy was avoiding the situation.  Cathy had a clear read though, as my aunt wasn’t ready to go yet.

As much as we expect that we will do bedside vigil in someone’s last minutes, the truth of the matter is that sometimes the minutes stretch to hours which stretch to days which stretch to weeks.  At least, that’s what happened to us.  It was and is impossible to live in a state of crisis for an extended period of time. We tried to make sense of why we were there for such a long time, but we surprised ourselves and ultimately found a way to cope with our grief  by singing.

When it was just my cousin Jerri Lynn, the oldest daughter, and myself in the room, we did what we could to keep the energy light.  One time when my uncle left for a few hours, he put JL in charge.  She turned to her mom (my aunt) and said, “Dad’s gone, now we can dance!”

As she said that, she made a big sweeping gesture with her arm and I asked her if she was doing the Hokey Pokey.  Since my aunt had been in and out and up and down so many times over the past few weeks, we felt somehow as if it was a great metaphor for her transition.

JL started it with her right arm. You put your right arm in, you put your right arm out. We made it through several body parts before the aides walked in the room.  They were quite surprised when they saw us doing the Hokey Pokey, but I think it was good for them. One of them even joined us for a few rounds, albeit reluctantly.  JL and I tried to keep the energy the way my aunt would have wanted it.  She always had a smile on her face.  She loved to giggle.  What better way to honor her than to do the Hokey Pokey with her?

The Hokey Pokey sparked something in us and my cousin and I then reminisced about the songs that my aunt had sung to us as children.  JL sang the lullaby that her mom had sung to her and that our grandmother had sung to our parents.  Jerri Lynn sang the lullaby over and over and every time she did, we could see the tension release in my aunt’s face (and ours too).  It was a song based upon a poem written by my grandmother that has special meaning for the whole family.

We even recalled my aunt’s wake-up song.  Imagine being a teenager trying to sleep in, and your mom/aunt comes barging in the room singing some perky pick up song, “RISE and SHINE and give GOD your glory, glory!”  Well, we sang that song too.

As my other cousins came in and found us singing, they would join in.  Later there was a chorus of  her daughters and myself singing the childhood song, “Boom boom ain’t it great to be crazy?”  That song was a stress-reliever for sure, even if we couldn’t remember all of the words.

Perhaps my sweetest memory is of the time that my cousins harmonized on my aunt’s favorite hymn, “In the Garden.” It was ultimately the song that my cousin Paula’s husband Tim sang at my aunt’s funeral.

Now it is the memory of the music and the sing-a-longs at my aunt’s bedside that somehow make the memory of her passing a little less painful for me.

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Lizzy Miles

Lizzy Miles

Lizzy Miles has been to more funerals than weddings in her life. She stopped counting her losses and started counting her “angels” when she reached double digits. Inspired by her comforting and positive experiences with hospice staff, Lizzy decided to pay it forward and become a hospice volunteer. She found that work so rewarding that she determined that her life's purpose was to work in hospice. She made a mid-life career change and quit her marketing job of twelve years to return to school to become a hospice social worker. While she was an intern for hospice, she organized an event where she helped a 91-year old hospice patient ski again. She has a Master's degree in Communication and one in Social Work. She is currently a hospice social worker and the networking chair for ADEC, the Association for Death Education and Counseling.

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