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The Silver Bell

Jane and Aunt Joan


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JOANNA B. PINNEO

Jane needed straight talk from Aunt Joan - especially during Mick's final days.


By ROY PETER CLARK
Special To The Times

Jane Morse rushed down the driveway. The man sitting in the mysterious car, the man she could barely recognize, was her husband Mick. He was so exhausted, he could not move.

Jane helped him out of the car, supported his weight - almost nothing now - and walked him slowly up the driveway toward the house, calling for Aunt Joan and Uncle Ralph.

"I can walk," said Mick proudly.

But when the door to the kitchen opened and Mick saw Aunt Joan, he collapsed into her arms.

She had told him at Christmas that he could come here to die. He had taken her up on it.

The date was Feb. 17, 1993. Mick had so little time left. But he had found his way home. He would get to see his children and his wife. He would put himself in the good hands of Joan and Ralph.

Joan had been a worker for Hospice, the organization that helps provide home care for dying patients, so she knew what to do. She would need Ralph's strength and co-operation, and he gave it in an instant.

Aunt Joan had worked with AIDS patients. She would wear two pairs of rubber gloves at the appropriate moments of care. Ralph was more nervous. He worked in the yard. The tiny Florida sand spurs left sores on his fingers. He would lift Mick up, help him dress, help him urinate, move him from bed to chair. He did it lovingly and dutifully and, when necessary, would double-glove. "But I had these sores on my fingers," he remembers. "Damn right, I was anxious."

When they helped Mick into the house, they saw once again how withered and weak he looked. He could have been 83 rather than 53. But the true state of his illness was not revealed until they helped him into bed and got him out of his clothes. His face, though cadaverous, was free of the cancerous lesions that affect many AIDS patients. But they were all over his body, along with grotesque tumors and discolorations all over his back. They were shocking to see - even for Aunt Joan.

Jane got on the phone and called Hospice. Workers would come down to help prepare the house for Mick, but they needed a doctor's statement that he had AIDS.

Mick's doctor was in Spain. Mick had no medical records with him. He had run out of money.

Joan called the Pinellas County Health Department. They would see Mick for an evaluation. The four-mile car trip was grueling for Mick. He was interviewed and examined by a nurse, but he would have to come back to see a doctor. Mick refused to leave the house again. He didn't have the strength or the will.

But Hospice helped him get settled in anyway. They assigned a nurse and a social worker. They brought a hospital bed, bed pans, a wheelchair, rubber gloves and other supplies. With these Joan could make him as comfortable as possible.

She had anticipated this moment, so a month earlier, on a vacation in Mexico, she bought a tiny silver bell. She placed the bell beside Mick's bed. He could ring it when he was hungry or thirsty, or when he wanted to sit up, or if he just needed some company.

The silver bell became the symbol of Mick's presence in the house, and of the family's care for him. The children would stop in for visits, but it was so hard for them. They remembered the youthful, vital, athletic dad who taught them to swim, or ride a horse, or hit a baseball. To see him so old and out of breath was too painful.

Joan began to hear the bell all the time, even when Mick hadn't rung it. She thought she heard it during the middle of the night, 3 a.m. to be exact. Mick needed to urinate but didn't have the strength to get out of bed or lift himself to use the bed pan. Uncle Ralph put his strong arms around Mick's sides and back and lifted him up. Aunt Joan held open a plastic bag for Mick to pee in. Mick still had his pride. He was embarrassed.

Mick would, on occasion, get out of bed, sit in the wheelchair and even use the telephone. "Who would he want to call?" wondered Uncle Ralph. He was calling teaching candidates he had interviewed at job fairs earlier in the month. He would gather his strength, steady his voice, and for three minutes at a time, sound like a healthy man. It blew Ralph and Joan away. "My God," they thought, "the man is still working."

They all knew the end would be coming soon. Aunt Joan saw an ad in the paper, and Jane drove to Clearwater to buy a year's worth of private ambulance service for only $65. In an emergency, they might need to transport Mick. Thank God, the price was a bargain.

Uncle Ralph knew Mick loved music and offered to play some tapes. Mick shook his head. He was so weak he could barely speak.

Aunt Joan read the signs. She went in to talk with Mick.

She told him about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, that she had some good books by her.

Joan offered to read one to Mick.

"She writes about this butterfly concept where your body's worn out, ravaged. She believes that when you die, you throw off your body like a cocoon, that your soul will come out like a butterfly and go into another dimension."

"That's interesting," said Mick with a raspy voice, and gave a little smile.

"Are you afraid?" asked Joan.

"No," said Mick.

Aunt Joan called Jane. This could be it, she said. Mick's last day.

THE SERIES: This is the 25th installment of a 29-part story.
Next: Chapter 26, Permission to Die


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