The Foundations of Love

As a lawyer who works with the elderly, I see my share of nursing homes and hospital rooms.  Over the years, perhaps to enable me to continue to provide objective services to my clients, I tried to keep my emotional distance from all of the illness, death and dying.  In the last two weeks alone, we had five (5) deaths and four (4) nursing home admissions.   But one of those deaths was a client who, over the years, had become more of a dear friend.   For some reason, she broke through and I felt like she was part of my family.  In some ways, my interaction with her during her final few years of her illness felt more personal to me than my involvement with my own parents.   She was a lovely lady.  She was 83 but she had worked until she was 80.   She never married and had no children but she had great capacity for love.  I often complained to her more about my various ailments than she did about hers.  She would listen about my sore hip while getting her oxygen from a tube.  On my next visit, she would remember and ask how my hip felt.  I don’t know why I complained to her, maybe on some crazy level I was trying to show her that she wasn’t the only one who was sick.  Of course, a sore hip rarely lands you in the hospital so she thought my complaints were cute.

She was tough and called things like they were.  Editing her thoughts was not something she did very often.  But over time she began to express a softer and more caring side.  She told me that she didn’t think she could have made it without the help of my partner and me.  It was so nice and so touching.  At one point, about six months ago, while she lay in a hospital bed, I told her that we all loved her.  She said to me that she loved us too.  After that, every conversation ended with this announcement and a kiss on the cheek goodbye.  At that time, I thought I knew about love but I was about to learn a lesson about what real love is all about.

My dear friend was fiercely independent and just as fiercely organized.  As a lifelong bookkeeper she always balanced her checkbook and her life.  Her tax materials came to me in such order that I felt I should pay her for the privilege of doing her taxes. There was a place for everything and everything in its place.  This is not to say she was a Agoody two shoes.@  She definitely liked to have fun and had some bad habits for sure. She loved her car and her independence.  She loved to bowl. She loved cards.   She loved Wawa croissants and Wawa vanilla ice cream – at least until Wawa stopped making croissants, which really annoyed her.  Her health regime basically boiled down to a combination of ice cream, chocolate cookies and croissants – with a pizza thrown in now and then for good measure.  It was really fun to go visit her although she announced to me at one visit that I was getting fat.  She, of course, weighed 100 pounds even after a pizza.   She loved clothes, dressed impeccably and loved jewelry, especially a ruby necklace her father gave her.  One of the biggest traumas of her final illness was the fact that the necklace disappeared after an emergency room visit.   We continued to hunt down this necklace up until the day she died.

One of her bad habits affected her lungs.   During the last several years of her life she started having more and more problems with colds, bronchitis and eventually pneumonia.  In the beginning, these episodes would keep her home and in bed on medications.  Eventually she had to be taken to the hospital for breathing augmentation and therapy.  She finally had to have oxygen at all times.   She fought hard against carrying around those big tanks and searched and searched for portable ones you could take bowling!  Around two years ago, the illnesses came more often and were more debilitating.   Her lungs became weaker, her heart valves started to malfunction; a part of a colon had to be removed and so on and so on.  She weathered it all but in December of last year she was told she couldn’t be home alone any more.  And just about this time, her valiant friends and neighbors who tirelessly helped her and drove her and visited her were wearing out a bit themselves.  Her only brother was getting older himself and was fighting cancer and was only able to get to see her periodically.

While thinking about how we could care for her at home, I remembered a caregiver who had worked closely with two elderly sisters who became our clients.  The second of the sisters had died recently and I took a chance and called the caregiver.  It happened that, at the precise time our friend needed help at home, our caregiver was available.  To say these two women appeared as polar opposites is putting it mildly. I won’t go into specifics but I was holding my breath when I arranged for them to meet in the hospital.  My friend was not at all happy about the whole idea but I told her it was the only way we could get her home.  After all, she refused to learn anything about how some of her new appliances worked.   She hated having them and hated even more being impeded by them.  But they met and something clicked and they went home together and stayed together for just about every day for the next six months.

When our friend died, her caregiver was with her holding her hand.  She spent every minute with her at home and the hospital and at the nursing home and then in hospice at home.  They sat and talked.  They looked at pictures.  They listened to music together.  If my friend was up to it, they would go out shopping.  Our caregiver went to all of the doctor appointments and there were a ton of those.  Our caregiver kept a notebook of everything that happened and when it happened and how it happened.  She knew exactly what the doctors said and monitored and fought that all directions were carried out to the letter.   Our perfectionist had met her match.  Not such polar opposites after all!  There was not a single care meeting or conference that the caregiver did not attend.   There was not a single need that she did not try to meet.  Her purse was full of our friend’s favorite snacks and applesauce so she could take her pills.  She knew what was needed and always had it in hand.

As I watched this over the months before she died, I marveled at the enormous self-sacrifice that our caregiver was making.   She rarely slept through the night because our friend often awoke at night unable to catch her breath.  She never took a day off.   I worried that she would become sick.   I realized that I was witnessing something very special.   This was love of the truest and rarest kind and forced me to re-examine some of my cynical ideas.  This was unconditional sacrifice, care and understanding without the slightest expectation of anything in return.   Doctors and nurses and friends and family all watched this in awe.   At the funeral, everyone wanted to meet our caregiver.  Somehow everyone wanted to meet this person who had so selflessly cared for their friend.  This seemed to transform the funeral, the service and the attendees.  The priest wanted to meet her and mentioned her in his sermon.  Everyone had heard about her.  I think that we all realized that we were seeing something rare.  It was love – love as a verb and not as a noun.  And it was so inspiring to watch it in action.  It is powerful.  It made other things seem more important, more real.  I really think that it changed just about everything and everyone who witnessed it or felt it.    Hospice nurses took note and attended the funeral.  I know that our friend, at the time of her death, was in a place of peace because she felt so loved and so valued.

There was this sense that it was all supposed to work out this way.  This was an important experience that people watching seemed to recall or perhaps learn for the first time.   Sometime during the last two years of her life, our client, who was always charitably minded, decided to leave her assets to a foundation.   During the last six months of her life she told me that she wanted her foundation to enable others to experience the kind of care and love that she was experiencing.  What I found inspiring about this was that the two sisters who were also cared for during their final years by our caregiver, made similar plan for a foundation as well.  Looking forward, these foundations will likely work together to carry out the wishes of their quite different but quite similar benefactors.  As I look back on this, I cannot help but be touched by the power of the small things over the large.  Or maybe I have seen that the small things are not so small after all.  The small things, like staying with someone who is ill until they are ready for you to go. The small things like not letting them push you away because they think you don=t want to be there.  The small things like remembering the applesauce or the mints.  Maybe not so small really since this is precisely what love is all about isn’t it?

mm About Leonard L. Shober

Leonard L. Shober has focused a quarter century on representing clients in their estates and tax matters. He began his legal career in an estate planning practice. However, his interest in taxes and estate planning led him to pursue a Master of Laws (LLM) from Temple which he completed in 1994. Len continued his estate and tax practice which ultimately led to a focus on the needs of the elderly and disabled. At Shober & Rock, Len focuses on elder law, tax and estate planning and estate and trust administration.

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