I am a hospice chaplain and will tell the story of a beautiful death I was recently part of.
Richard and Eleanor rented the second floor of an old Victorian house in the Haight Ashbury that had never been remodeled. It had become cluttered. In Eleanor’s room there were tables of all kinds of plants, and shelves of little toy figures and dolls and books. Richard said that at the end she pretty much became a hoarder. They had four beloved dogs that were always part of our visits. Richard and Eleanor were the nicest old hippie couple you could ever meet. Elanore lived in a house with Janice Joplin somewhere in Noe Valley for a while in her younger days.
On my first visit to Eleanor she lay in her bed covered in Blankets. The four small dogs lying around her, two of which were getting old themselves. She smiled brightly, delighted with my presence as with an old friend. She shooed a couple of the dogs off and asked me to sit by her. Eleanor spoke very well, and always she responded to any question or interaction with no hesitation. She had the innocence of a child and the intelligence of a woman. The first day I played songs for her, and it was a wonderful spontaneous time. At first I played old songs, but when I saw how she loved the tone and affection in the music, as I do, I played some of my own compositions. She didn’t just listen; she closed her eyes and meditated on the music, and she was part of it. She said the songs were beautiful and sustained her through the days. She sometimes shared images and memories that came to her mind after the songs.
I also talked to her about her relationship with God. She had some Christian back round and believed in God and heaven. She believed in a spiritual way connected to nature, art and to life. On some visits Richard brought-out a book that featured great artist’s paintings of dogs, animals and nature and we all looked through them together. Each visit I said a prayer with Eleanor.
On many visits we sat in the long narrow kitchen at the table, which had various colored items of art (like a dream catcher), rocks and plants on it. Elanore sat in her wheel chair; I sat nearby, and Richard would sit with the dogs on the floor giving them treats. Richard participated in the visits; made coffee, and made sure Eleanor was comfortable. Richard also loved music, and sometimes requested songs, like ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen. One day when I came to the door Richard told me that Eleanor asked him eagerly the day before, “When is the man with the Green Rainbow above his head coming back?”
Often Eleanor’s statements didn’t make linear sense, and Richard helped to interpret what these meant, or whether they were something real or imagined. This was because she sometimes had ‘hallucinations’. In her room there was a little tree and she would ask me if I saw the birds in the tree. Richard said that at night she often became paranoid and upset over the things she imagined, and for a while this was a stressful burden on Richard. She often imagined there were intruders. During my visits she sometimes cried suddenly. Richard said she was doing this more toward the end, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I thought of this like kids that act-out in a family; in many ways its healthy because they feel safe to experiment, be them selves, express their feelings, deal with consequences and forgive. Eleanor’s tears quickly passed, and more often then not she expressed joy and care for others.
I talked to her about the things she imagined and tried to reframe them in a healing light, and she was receptive to these suggestions. (Richard did not think that her hallucinations were caused by their days of taking LSD.) Because she had such a quality of innocence and creative spirit she accepted these ideas with ease and affection. When she said there were birds in the tree I asked what kind and she said they were blue birds like a picture on the wall that she had painted a long time ago. I suggested the birds were messengers from heaven and that the blue birds were like angels, just like in the song ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ which I had sung to her the first day. She loved this idea. Her paranoia with the hallucinations gradually became better over the time of our visits. I wrote a song about Eleanor and our visits called, “The man with the Green Rainbow”. We had great fun with this.
I visited on the day before she passed away. She lay in bed and could barely move but she could talk. She smiled and looked right into me – the same as always. After we had talked and prayed Richard asked me to play a song. I wanted to play something suited to both of them, and played ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow” because it has such beautiful imagery of heaven. I played my best for them. Richard said with utter delight, “Look at her face its shinning at me, did you see it?” I said no, I wasn’t looking but could feel it”. He asked me to play the same song again, and I did. Richard cried as they deeply communed together again, and was very thankful. He took down the picture from the wall that she had painted of a blue bird and showed it to her. She was utterly delighted.
After this the nurse came and gave her some morphine and Richard said that she froze and didn’t talk again. That night Richard said their smallest dog, Ripple, woke him up in the middle of the night, and He went in and checked on her. He said she was still warm and must of just passed. They had adopted Ripple as a rescue; ripple’s former owner had passed away. Richard felt this dog knew from experience something was wrong.
As a final note, Richard spent quality time with his brother and they drove together to Eleanor’s burial in Guerneville. They took all the dogs with them, as they couldn’t be left at home. Without any signs of illness Eleanor’s own dog died in the car on the way. Richard felt that the Dog must of wanted to go with her owner. Her beloved Dog was buried near her in Guerneville.