The 1 a.m. phone alert seemed just the latest in a series we’d come to know since the onset of my mother’s final illness. This climactic call, however, displayed the instant intimacy our family had been granted by the round-the-clock team at Capital Hospice.
Though headquartered in Falls Church, Capital Hospice for me is embodied in the classic Colonial-style schoolhouse whose exquisite gardens front onto Arlington’s 16th St., near North Glebe Road.
The Halquist Memorial Inpatient facility is a building to which my family has multiple ties. My sister attended high school there when it housed Arlington’s experimental Woodlawn program in the early 1970s. Her husband spent his formative years there in the ’60s when it was Woodlawn Elementary. And my mother herself taught a course there in biblical scholarship.
But neither I nor my siblings could have guessed that this Eden-like setting, with beds for just 15, would suddenly last August become the site of my 87-year-old mother’s last hours.
Our first contact with Capital Hospice was a comforting voicemail left in July by a staffer named Miguel, a response to our tentative inquiry. At this stage of my mother’s battle against lymphoma, we were shuttling between her apartment at Ballston’s Jefferson retirement community, George Washington University Hospital and Virginia Hospital Center.
We were adjusting to being active health-care consumers, making decisions fraught with uncertainty, having no inkling whether the patient would end up back home, in a hospital or in a rented room at a Sunrise complex. Soon we had another choice.
Capital Hospice, a pioneer of the nationwide hospice movement since 1977, has helped more than 60,000 patients and families “live their best lives with advanced illness.” It treats 900 patients daily in Virginia, the District and Maryland. Palliative care is delivered in homes, hospitals or rehab facilities by 22 staff physicians, 600 employees and 850 volunteers.
Though sometimes controversial, hospice’s acceptance-of-death approach is fully covered by Medicare. The effort is funded by donations — a thrift store at the Willston Shopping Center; a November black-tie auction at the Tyson’s Ritz Carlton; a recent gift of $1,000 in taxi coupons from Arlington’s Red Top Cab; memorial gifts directed by grateful families.
My family’s month’s-long drama peaked on Aug. 14, when my mother’s doctors ended all treatment. The hospice rep arrived to settle a dispute over whether she could be transferred on a weekend. A voice inside me said to accompany her in the transport ambulance to Capital Hospice. Sure enough, the drivers headed erroneously toward its Northwest Washington facility before I redirected them to Arlington.
For 24 hours our family-finally relieved of the hospital’s war-zone tension-drank in hospice’s humanistic tranquility. Naturally paced conversation. Few rules. Volunteers serving coffee and tending to our emotions. Visits by a therapy dog, a guitarist, friends, my mother’s minister, her church choirmates.
We felt joyfully assured that despite her apparent unconsciousness, my mother heard them all.
In my bed just after midnight Aug. 16, I was awakened by the call, from a soothingly competent hospice staffer. I drove to pick up my sister and brother, and the three of us stood under moonlight in the garden of the Halquist building.
Right at this intensified moment, a wild rabbit scampered by. At this most vital institution, the life force goes on, 24 hours each day.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]