Guilt and Shame

The hospice house was tucked in next to a green hill, down a long and winding private blacktop road.  It wasn’t what I had imagined, and it astonished me that I had lived in this town for almost 25 years and didn’t know how to find the house, not even knowing what section of town it was in.

As I parked and got out of my car, I looked at the entrance.  Everything was beautifully and thoughtfully planned out, cared for, tended to.  It was May and there were blooming plants everywhere.  When I came to the door, there was a plaque asking visitors to ring the doorbell.  Everything about this place seemed like a house, not somewhere Medicaid will pay to have you die in peace.

It was an even greater surprise to me that the volunteer who opened the door, was my supervisor from the very first job I ever had in high school.  It was wonderful to see him there, albeit a bit confusing because I never would have thought him to be interested in this type of work.  In “real life,” Charlie was intense and always seemed anxious.  Here at the hospice house, he spoke so quietly I almost didn’t hear him and there was no sound of tension in his voice.

I told him who I was there to see, and he brought me to The Bird Lady’s room.  She looked just as I had seen her last, although much thinner and with a yellowish-grayish cast to her skin.  This was one of her first few days in the hospice house, and she still had her wits about her.  I went over and gave her a big hug, and then noticed her evil sister sitting in the chair across from the bed.

I exchanged pleasantries with her sister, but I was there to make peace with The Bird Lady.  To make peace with who we were to each other in life, and to make peace with the fact that she was days from death.  The evil sister didn’t leave and consistently interrupted our conversation.  The Bird Lady eventually asked her sister to go find her some ice cream, and then I was able to spend a few minutes along with my dear godmother.

I don’t remember well what we talked about, but I do remember I didn’t cry.  I needed to see that she was ready to go, and it was very clear that she was, indeed, ready.  Most of my visit is blurry in my memory, except for a notable scene with her sister.  Something I am ashamed of to this day, something I feel deeply guilty about, something I can never change.

The Bird Lady:  Rose, will you wheel me out to the porch so I can have a cigarette?

Evil Sister:  You know that is against the rules and the nurse will have a fit if they find out.  Rose, you can’t take her out there.  What if she falls?

The Bird Lady:  Rose, will you?

Me:  (looking back and forth between sisters and considering my fear of the rules and my considerable fear of her sister)  I think we should wait until the nurse comes back and ask if it would be okay.  I’m sure they will let you.

The Bird Lady:  (losing control a bit) Dammit, Rose!  I just want to go outside for awhile.

Me:  Your sister scares me, Sondra, and I think we should wait for the nurse.  It shouldn’t be much longer he will pass through.

The Bird Lady:  Rose Talbott!  I have known you your entire life and you have NEVER been scared of ANYTHING!

And thus it went.  My godmother didn’t know the extent of my fear of other people, of the rules, of anything really.  She didn’t know how afraid I was of life in general, and she never would.  What she would know is that I refused to take her outside, as she was literally lying on her deathbed, and I wouldn’t grant that small request.

Denying that request replays this scene in my mind over and over, even years later.  The guilt and shame of it are often more than I can bear.  I could have given her a moment of peace, and I didn’t.  Guilt and shame.