This is the seventh in a series of blog posts about “When Life Happens All at Once.” It’s a story about losing a loved one, and I’m telling it one day at a time.
Sunday Morning, October 30, 2016
I got to the hospital at 7:15 a.m. Jean was sleeping soundly. I asked Venice, the nurse who had taken care of Jean through the night, how she was doing. She said, “Jean had a really rough night. She had two severe A-fib episodes,” and then she asked me if I could get a copy of Jean’s advance directive. I told her I had visited with the doctor on Saturday, and that he had made a note on her chart to not take extreme measures to save her life if her heart stopped.
Venice looked at the chart. She nodded, and then said, “Without an advance directive we are legally obligated to do everything within our power to keep her alive.”
I felt like I’d been hit with a baseball bat. It hadn’t occurred to me that Jean might die. I know how important it is to have an advance directive. I carry a card in my wallet with instructions on how to access mine 24-hours a day anywhere in the world. I have written about it and lectured about it, so I started kicking myself––first for not understanding how sick Jean was, and secondly for not insisting a long time ago that she provide me with a copy.
Jean’s attorney is a friend of ours. I knew that he had drawn up her will, and I was certain that he had also had her complete an advance directive. I looked at my watch. It was 7:30. It was Sunday morning. I called Ryan’s office number in hopes of getting an answering service or an emergency number––no luck. I looked up his home number, took a deep breath and called. I got a message that said the voicemail box was full and not able to take new messages.
I then slipped quietly into Jean’s room. She was sound asleep. Without disturbing her, I took her handbag out of the drawer. While driving to her apartment, I called my husband and my brother Greg and told them what I was planning to do.
Going into Jean’s apartment uninvited felt like an incredible betrayal. She had worked in Army Intelligence in Washington DC for thirty years. When it comes to her personal business, she is beyond private––everything with her is Top Secret.
I remembered seeing a plastic file box, and I thought if I could locate the box, that I would find her advance directive.
When I let myself into her apartment and started looking for the file box, my breath caught in my throat. Although Alex and I go to see her at least once a week, we have never ventured past her living room. When I went into her bedroom, I realized why Jean had insisted on having Annie get her purse. She didn’t want me to know that she had lost the ability to manage her belongings.
I found a two-drawer file in the closet, but the documents inside of it were decades old. I opened the drawer on the entertainment center where she had told me to look for the number for Urgent Care, and I knew immediately that sorting that drawer could take hours. Everything about being in her apartment without her knowledge, and sorting through her things without her permission made me feel like I was betraying her trust. I knew she would be upset, so I walked out and locked the door.
I remembered that Ryan’s wife had helped our mayor with her last campaign. Anna is a personal friend, so I sent her a text, praying that she would be up early on a Sunday morning.
Within a few minutes, she wrote back and said she didn’t have their cell phone numbers, but she knew Ryan’s brother-in-law. She said she would try to get in touch with him.
Within an hour, Anna made the connection. Ryan called me on my cell phone. He sounded sleepy. He said that they had upgraded their computer system a few years ago. Jean’s file hadn’t been transferred to the new system, so he would have to go to the office and dig it out of storage.
I know he wanted me to tell him to not bother with it until Monday, but I couldn’t do that. I had assumed that Jean would get well, but when I talked Venice, I realized that she was getting worse––not better. Without the advance directive, she might have to endure painful treatments and end up living the rest of her life in a nursing home.