Pete was a brilliant man. He had a keen sense of humor, loved schooling, and spent many years as a student, but he’d had some rough times. A long history of abusing drugs and alcohol was taking a toll on his body. He had completed many addiction recovery programs, only to relapse and start drinking again.
Once while drinking, he fell, hit his head and suffered a concussion and bleeding on the brain. He ended up at Gateway Rehabilitation Center where he was referred to a psychologist and diagnosed as manic depressive.
“The diagnosis changed his life,” said his sister Paige Giberson. “For the first time his depression was being addressed as a link to his excessive drinking.”
Upon discharge, Pete moved to Firwood Gardens, an assisted living center and was referred to Providence ElderPlace. With his diagnosis, Pete’s new care team was able to address his entire well-being and not just his drinking. Pete’s health improved, his blood sugars were stabilized, and his depression and overall well-being improved. He felt well enough to ask ElderPlace staff to help him find volunteer work to help keep him busy. He had a voracious appetite for reading and was constantly in search of new books.
According to Paige, Firwood Gardens and ElderPlace offered “a very nurturing system.” She says the people he met at both locations “became family.”
Pete’s hard-won peace didn’t last long. He had paid a high price physically for his days of drinking, and when Pete was diagnosed with liver failure and given a year to live, his spirit plummeted.
“His depression returned, and he began to drink again.” Paige explained. “He withdrew from everyone and would only talk to staff from Firwood Gardens and a few close friends that lived there.”
Pete was in trouble. His placement at Firwood Gardens, the home he had grown to love, was in jeopardy. His drinking led to repeated falls, which was placing too much of a burden on the staff. They could not care for him safely.
Pat Moore, residential care manager at Firwood Gardens, explains how the staff got together for an intervention. They sat him down, looked him in the eye and said, “Enough is enough!” They said they wanted him to live his last days with people he knew and loved and not be forced to move, but they couldn’t continue to care for him if he kept drinking. They would have to evict him.
“It was like a light bulb just switched on,” Pat said.
Pete stopped drinking, became calmer and entered palliative care stage II. He even called his sister, Paige, who was living in San Diego, to tell her his sad health news.
His ElderPlace physicians talked with Pete about his medical care, about his plans for a funeral, and even his thoughts on death. Pete practiced a form of Zen Buddhism called Shoto. Although he declined the offer from ElderPlace chaplain Hilda Lethe-Drake to contact Buddhist spiritual leaders, he was open to doing “what I have always been doing, which is read a book,” she said.
So Hilda brought him a book, The Prophet, by Lebanese philosopher Kahlil Gibran. Hilda and Pete talked about many things, but Pete mostly liked to explore ideas. They often talked about the meaning of life.
“He asked hard questions,” Hilda remembers. “He wasn’t satisfied with simple answers. I even asked him outright if he was ready to die. He was the kind of guy you could ask something like that.”
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
With Pete’s approval, ElderPlace also contacted his sister in California and kept her informed of his condition. When his decline grew worse, they called to warn her and encouraged her to visit if she could.
Despite significant difficulties, Paige flew out to Oregon to visit her brother. Paige’s visit was good for both of them. Chaplain Hilda noted during one of her visits the “abundant loving and teasing messages flowing freely between the two siblings.” It was obvious that Pete felt loved and supported by his sister.
Paige arrived as Pete was having a couple of good days. She helped Pete get into his wheelchair and took him for a walk. Good friends of Peter’s—Shannon and David from Portland, and Diane from Eugene, along with his friends from Firwood Gardens—, spent time with Pete while he was still lucid. They also spent a lot of time just talking and reminiscing about their family and childhood and enjoying their time together.
“But then he started closing up, like a flower in reverse,” Paige recalls. “He was conscious but didn’t want to talk. He just wanted to ‘be.’”
Paige stayed with Pete until the end. She had never been with someone throughout the death process and was unsure what to expect. But she said the staff members from Firwood Garden and ElderPlace were with her every step of the way.
“They taught me how to swab his mouth and reposition him in bed so he was comfortable,” she said. “They gave me information on what would happen next. I never felt alone.”
It was a cold, gray day and Paige had just awoken from some much-needed sleep. Chaplain Hilda and her colleague, social worker Sherry Hanrahan, soon arrived and brought a passage quilt.
“I was stunned. It was so beautiful,” Paige said.
They laid it on Pete and read the emotional, touching poems sewn into the quilt. It was then that Pete’s breathing became very labored, deep and raspy.
Paige held Pete’s hand tightly and whispered to him, “You can go now, Pete. Fly away, fly away.”
Shortly afterward he slipped away, and as he did the sun popped out from behind the clouds and a ray of light fell across Pete as if it were lighting the way.
“It was his Superman cape because he took off with it on,” Paige jokes a little tearfully. “I travel with it now. I feel like it protects me.”
“It was nice that we were able to work with a facility that allowed him to stay through end of life,” ElderPlace social worker Sherry Hanrahan explained. “It wasn’t a smooth road, but Firwood Gardens certainly rose to the occasion.”
“It was an absolutely amazing trip,” Paige says, explaining how much it meant to be part of her brother’s final journey. “I couldn’t have asked for a more loving and supportive group of people for myself or my brother. I thank them for their compassionate and loving support.”