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My mother turned 80 last week, and we’d planned a weekend birthday party for her in Cincinnati, with family members coming in from out of state to surprise her.  But Thursday night those plans were cancelled when Mom called to say she couldn’t leave Portsmouth, because Lodi was dying and she didn’t want to leave her.

Lodi’s parents died when she was five, scattering 8 brothers and sisters among an assortment of relatives who took them in at the beginning of the Great Depression.  Clara and Nell, two of her aunts who never married, raised Lodi as their daughter, and all three of them joined our family circle when Clara became my babysitter.

I spent Sundays at their house after church, enjoying Clara’s homemade chicken and dumplings.  We went on trips downtown to see Nell in the shoe department of Marting’s Department Store, and Lodi at the Portsmouth Banking Company where she worked as a teller.  On weekends we drove all the way to Chillicothe to have chocolate fountain Cokes at the Jones Boy’s department store.  They treated me like their own.

As the years rolled by, Clara and Nell passed away and Lodi retired, but she never stopped being a part of our family.  As she aged and needed help, my parents stepped in.  Mom would fix her meals each day, help her pay her bills and do her laundry.  Dad would change lightbulbs and fix appliances.  But it was impossible for them to monitor her 24 hours a day.

One day she put an unopened can of Campbell’s tomato soup on the stove, and turned on the burner.  A few months later she fell taking out her trash, breaking her hip and lying on the ground over an hour before the woman next door saw her out her kitchen window.  During her rehabilitation for her hip, she was not a compliant patient, and her ability to walk continued to decline.  So, at age 86, her doctors decided she needed to go into a nursing home.

She had no living relatives other than two nieces who’d asked Mom to ship them her belongings, and they lived in Florida and Wisconsin, so Mom and Dad stepped in again.  They investigated nursing homes in the area, fought to get long-term care benefits from a failing insurance company she’d paid premiums to for years, and filled out medical paperwork.

For the first few years they were able to pay for her care with her savings, but eventually her funds ran out.  Fortunately, the nursing home she was in had a small number of Medicaid beds, and she could stay in a familiar place where the staff has always been kind and attentive to her.  But even under the most ideal conditions a nursing home is a difficult place. She wanted to be in her own apartment, but her health required 24-hour monitoring and she couldn’t live alone.  As she approached her 92nd birthday this year she began eating less and less.  And when her roommate, Ann, passed away she retreated even more from the world.  She looked, to me, like a frail baby bird.

I headed home last Friday to be with my parents.  Mom and I spent the weekend with Lodi in her room, talking to her and holding her hand while she rested. The nurse gave her small doses of pain medication prescribed by hospice, and as its effectiveness came to an end she would moan and become restless, pulling on her blanket, and looking past me with a blank stare.  We were so concerned about alleviating her pain at one point Mom kept asking her where she was hurting.  “Everywhere,” she finally answered.  It was the only word she spoke all weekend.  We were able to get her pain medication increased and an antianxiety medication added, and she was resting comfortably when I headed back to Cincinnati on Sunday night.

As I type this blog, Mom and Dad are still sitting with her in her hospice room.

In our society, where every day is full and to-do lists rule our days, two of the most work-oriented and accomplished people I know are showing me the greatest gift we can give someone we love is to simply be present, and still, when they need us most.