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Hanging at Hannafords

It was 12 degrees here the other morning. That’s TWELVE. When I wake up now, I get a tiny thrill out of guessing how cold it might be and then checking my phone to see how close I was. I know I could get a life, but I already have a life, and it is a cold one.

The first snow was beautiful this week. I drove between patients marveling at all the little snow habits you forget over the summer, like how you’ll be driving under telephone wires and a little puff of wind will dump a straight line of snow down onto the road. Or the way hazy veils of powder blow off a tree as you’re driving by and it’s a tiny whiteout. I was all snow! I have found my love for it! And then that night I was trudging down to my daughter-in-law’s house to take a shower because our water heater broke and the stairs were all slippery and I was thinking, fuck this dangerous crap, where are the palm trees?

Living in upstate New York is a feast for the senses. Every couple of weeks there’s a new season. Many of them feature things like peach orchards, roadside farm-stands, and hundreds of apple varieties. Some of them feature twelve degrees and picking your way down your icy driveway with cleats on your shoes. I’m just trying to get to my car, you are thinking. Your emotions get jerked around. I could die here!

There is a degree of drama in snow country that we just didn’t get in the San Francisco Bay Area. Storm warnings come in and people rush to the store to buy candles and batteries and generators like they haven’t lived here all their lives. It’s exciting. This is my third winter here and I’m still trying to figure out how seriously to take all the warnings. Part of me, the Irish part, thinks settle down people, it’s just a bit of snow. But part of me, the part that has now survived two winters here, thinks remember that time last year when you thought settle down people and then there was a giant ice storm and the power went out and two of your patients nearly froze to death in their homes?

When you work for hospice, you have to take weather warnings seriously, and every impending storm creates a disproportionate load of work. This week, the warnings started Tuesday: heavy snow Thursday night into Friday. We started getting emails and texts with lists of things to check. We had to call all our patients and make sure they had enough medications, oxygen tanks, and an emergency evacuation plan. We actually devise these plans for them, so we had to make sure they were all up to date. No point having Mr. Jones listed as low priority, ambulates, shelter in place. That was last month. Now he’s bedbound on oxygen. Got backup tanks?

Thursday was an intense day even without a storm warning. Two of my patients were on the brink of death. They happened to live five minutes apart. At the day’s start, I asked my supervisors for help if they both died at the same time. There wasn’t any. I also had my weekly meeting all morning, which I usually zoom into from home. At 9:30 I set out so I could be close to both houses. Just in case. Both families said they were okay, but in my experience it’s best to drive there anyway. Then when they need you in three minutes, you are three minutes away. I put my meeting on in the car, which is laughable because even with my MiFi hotspot ultra superfine technological wonder item, I constantly lose service and nobody can hear me.

So I drive until I am close to both of my patients. The midway point is the Hannafords parking lot. Hannafords is the kind of grocery store that typically sits in a strip mall with a parking lot the size of Texas. So I pick a spot looking out over the Dunkin’ Donuts and I cut my engine and prepare to while away some time charting while I wait to hear news. It’s 28 degrees out so after two minutes I have to turn my engine on to prevent my feet from freezing. My trusty Subaru chooses this moment to let me know it’s well overdue for a service, and the heating stops working. Just because I didn’t do the 60k service? Come onnnnnn!

Pretty soon, one of the families texts to let me know they would really appreciate a visit as soon as possible. I drive the three minutes to their house. On the way I put on a song I really love, because I know this visit is going to be a tough one. It’s Joni Mitchell’s slow version of Both Sides Now, which makes me cry every year when I watch Love, Actually. This is my favorite patient I’m going to see, and you might think I’d put on a cheery song to brace myself, but you would be wrong. Sometimes you just have to sink in.

It’s a relatively tough visit, and then things calm down and soon enough I’m back in the Hannafords parking lot looking out over Dunkin’ Donuts with my heat not working. And that is pretty much how the day goes. I make a few visits but by 3 I’m back at Hannafords texting the night staff to let them know the story. I’m going to hang here till 4:30 but then it’s over to you. I give them some helpful details: how the families are coping, that funeral arrangements are made, how these deaths have been.

Texting how a death has been: it’s a strange distillation. You say things like very loving supportive family, or husband is really struggling, and in those four words you summarize days, weeks, years of peoples’ lives. You distill all that you have experienced with this patient and their family. You have to be brief, but four words to the night staff speak volumes. I knew that if I had to come off shift with one or both of my patients still alive, these nurses would have it.

At 4:30 I headed home, feeling sad that I hadn’t been able to go to either family for the death. My feet were two blocks of ice and I wondered if I’d ever have full use of my fingers again. The day felt unfinished. It’s a challenge when folks die during the night and the night nurse does the death visit and you find out when you check your work phone the next morning.

As it happened, one death occurred soon after my shift ended and everyone was in good hands. The other happened 7am Friday. The night nurse texted me saying the family wanted some time with their loved one, and could I come at 9. I was happy to go at 9 and get the closure of seeing her and her family a final time. My car heating still wasn’t working, but the predicted storm had not turned out so bad. I headed across the Poughkeepsie bridge in a moderate layer of slush and I put some cheery songs on and I thought settle down people, it’s just a bit of snow!

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