Earlier this month I drove up to what’s left of the Glendale Nursing Home in Glenville.
The series of connected old buildings is still intact, a backdrop to a gaping hole that will give way to a new facility. But for now, the hole in the ground serves as a metaphor for what I would encounter when I went to see my hospice patient, Ruth.
She wasn’t in her chair on the A wing hallway as she’d been for the past six weeks, ever since the cancer spread to her brain and she could no longer get around on her own. Each day, the staff had gotten her out of bed, dressed her stylishly and combed out her long white hair, and put her Nikes on her feet, even though she wasn’t going anywhere. They knew how much she cared about her appearance. And so she sat, mostly napping, but still able to recognize me and the other hospice volunteer. And of course she knew her three sons and their families.
“Ruth is in heaven,” said a young nurse as she saw me approach Ruth’s room, looking puzzled. And despite expecting it every day for weeks, I was shocked.
Still, her passing was merciful, for this bright, vibrant woman seemed unaware of the mental functions she’d lost. When she’d first had trouble finding the right words, in May, she was distraught. But for the past month or so, her mind had taken her back to happier times on the farm where she grew up in Virginia. I worried about her pain; she worried about picking cotton.
I stood among her things, piled on the bed, a scene that always astonishes me. For this is what many people in our country are reduced to at the end: after a series of downsizings, a small pile of things. Books, a tube of Pringles. A Mexican hat.
Ruth worked since those days on the farm. She supported her children, often alone, as she advanced from waitress to restaurant manager. She had savings, but they dwindled rapidly once she moved to assisted living. Ruth wouldn’t dream of asking her sons to help support her. And so last February, when given the choice of a surgery that she would probably not survive, or comfort care in a nursing home, she chose the latter.
When I met Ruth on Feb. 27, she was so alert and vivacious that I couldn’t believe she was in a nursing home. But she had liver cancer, and since both of my parents died from that, I knew she didn’t have long.
We quickly fell into a comfortable friendship, based on our love of books.
The last one we discussed was a wonderful story about Mormon women on the trail from Appalachia to the great Salt Lake — we talked about how we would have handled polygamy. When the Gazette ran a story about my new book, I brought the newspaper right over to her. She kept my books in a special drawer. Today they are part of the pile on her bed.
When I returned to Glendale with my iPad to photograph Ruth’s room, one of her sons was there, trying to decide which things to leave to the other patients. He thanked me for visiting, and I asked about funeral plans.
“Oh, she won’t be having a funeral. She donated her body to Albany Med. She wants the students to learn from her, and then she’ll be cremated.”
I’m not surprised. For Ruth Wallace taught me a lot, too.
I could see how much she was loved from the faces of her family as they arrived over her last few weeks from as far away as Florida. They took care of her and laughed with her, knowing instinctively that a dying patient would rather talk about happy times past than dwell on the present.
I will never forget Ruth’s optimism. She never complained about pain, the drab walls, her roommate who’d raise a fuss if Ruth’s easy chair inched over the center line, or even the noise of the construction that she knew would soon swallow her final home.
I’ve learned, from my seven years visiting hospice patients at Glendale, that an institution’s appearance doesn’t reflect the warmth, caring and expertise that the residents experience. The staff are so dedicated that one I met even took a 103-year-old woman home with her for her final months.
Community of stories
The soon-to-be-gone Glendale Home may look like a falling-apart mausoleum, but inside it’s a community. And it’s full of stories, behind the tired faces of the residents, waiting for someone to come by and ask them about themselves. I’m glad that a new community that will include an affordable assisted living facility will replace the sad Glendale.
Ruth had a good death. She came onto the care of Community Hospice right after her diagnosis. Most cancer patients start near the end, sometimes because their health care providers regard hospice as a sign of professional failure. My first few patients fit this mold — I didn’t visit them long enough to know them.
Asking hospice to help isn’t giving up — it is choosing to die with dignity. And Ruth Wallace, still beautiful when I last saw her yesterday, certainly did that.
Ricki Lewis, a Glenville resident, is author of “The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It.”