by JS Stephens
Copyright © 2008, revised 2013. All Rights Reserved. Feedback to: email@example.com
Usual disclaimer: Brigid Anderson and Helen Pappas are creatures of my own imagination, although they do have Xena and Gabrielle as their spiritual ancestors. Melinda Pappas is a character from the hit TV show, Xena: Warrior Princess, but I'm not letting that stop me. This story picks up several years after "Fight the Good Fight". It helps to have read the other stories in my Uber series to understand the characters and the background.
Additional information: one of the characters suffers from a debilitating condition (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) that usually takes years to develop, but in this case, takes months. I am not compressing the symptoms, this happened to my mother.
Helen and Brigid Series
Melinda sat upright, dreading what she would see. She turned on the bedside lamp, dreading, yet needing, the truth of the moment. Taking a deep breath, she turned over, reaching with a trembling hand, seeking Kelly's pulse and not finding it. She placed her hand on Kelly's chest, but did not feel it rise and fall. She closed her eyes for a few seconds, then steeled herself to start making phone calls.
Charles Stanwyck met Melinda Pappas at the funeral home later that day, shocked that his beloved aunt was dead. He knew she was, what, ninety-two? Ninety-three? He'd lost count, she had been so active and so vibrant all of her life, it didn't seem possible that she was dead now. He'd been shocked a few years ago when Dr. Pappas showed up in Arizona, quietly moving in with his aunt, and slowly inserting herself into their lives. She was so gracious, so sweet, that he and his wife were charmed into accepting her presence in Aunt Kelly's life. Now his aunt was dead, probably of a heart attack, and he was having a terrible time pulling his wildly flitting thoughts together long enough to answer the funeral director's questions. Thank God for Dr. Pappas, who had talked his aunt into prepaid funeral plans when she moved to Arizona, and thank God she was sitting there, still with excellent posture, holding his hand as they worked through the questions. When the question came to survivors, Charles turned and asked, "Do you want to be listed, Dr. Pappas?"
"Just as a friend, Charles," she said quietly, "I know that the rest of your family did not know of our true relationship, but you should be listed as the primary survivor. Kelly adored you."
"All right, that sounds good." Charles paused, mopping his eyes, then said, "Please, list Dr. Pappas as a dear friend who stayed with my aunt in her last days."
"I will, Mr. Stanwyck," the funeral director promised.
Helen Pappas and Brigid Anderson arrived just before the funeral, sitting in the back of the chapel, not wishing to intrude on the service. They followed the long, mournful string of cars to the grave site, and offered their condolences to Charles and his family. Over the next week, they helped their aunt Melinda pack up her belongings and ship them back to St. James, South Carolina, back to their family home. Helen and Brigid noticed that their aunt was very quiet, almost lethargic, during the cross-country flight, chalking it up to grief and fatigue.
"Aunt Mel?" Helen gently shook her aunt's shoulder, trying to wake her up. "Aunt Mel, we're supposed to be at the university today for the dedication." Melinda started to roll out of bed, but felt weak. "Auntie, what's wrong?" Melinda shook her head, falling back on the bed, laying there a moment before making a determined effort to get out of bed. She had to hold on to Helen's arm to stand, and her throat felt funny. Maybe she was coming down with a cold or something.
"I'm afraid you'll have to help me to the shower," Melinda said. Or tried to say, the words came out slurred, like she had been drinking heavily, but she had not touched any alcohol in a few years. Puzzled, she cleared her throat and tried again, this time, it was a little better. Helen stared at her oddly, and Melinda just leaned against her niece, saying, "Let's get me cleaned up."
An hour later, Melinda seemed to recover, so Helen, Brigid, and Melinda left for the ceremony to dedicate the new wing of the university library. Melinda made it through the ceremony, but felt odd all day, and noticed she had trouble swallowing certain foods, and nearly choked on her tea twice. Brigid shot a worried look at her partner, whispering, "Any idea what is going on?" Helen shook her head no. "Then we should take Aunt Mel to the doctor tomorrow. Something is wrong."
Dr. Jonas Adams looked at the chart, frowning, trying to make sense of the symptoms. A stroke had been ruled out, as had infections, heart attack, and common neurological ailments. Melinda Pappas' speech was slurring worse, and her right arm was losing function to the point that she could no longer hold a pen. She reported that she was having trouble drinking anything other than milk shakes or buttermilk, or other thicker liquids. She choked easily, and had trouble swallowing most foods, but could still eat thick soups, mashed potatoes, and similar foods. He leaned back in his chair, puzzled as to what seemed to be attacking her nerves.
"Oh, shit," he said as he reached for his mouse. He went to another site and started reading the symptoms, horrified that they matched. "They're not going to like this," he said as he reached for the phone. Dialing the number, he drummed his fingers impatiently until Helen answered the phone. "Helen, could you or Brigid please bring your aunt in today? I'd like to run another test." He listened to the reply, then said, "To be honest, I'm baffled, but I think one last test will point me in the right direction." As he spoke, he brought up the office calendar, spying an opening that afternoon, the last appointment of the day. He normally did not mess with the schedule, but Melinda Pappas had been one of his grandmother's dearest friends, and he dared not wait a moment longer. "Yes, please come at 4:30. I'm putting her on the schedule now and will tell Jill at the front desk to expect you." A moment. "Thank you, Helen. I'll see you all at 4:30."
The rest of the day dragged on for all parties involved. Helen was not teaching during the summer, intending to work on a long delayed book, but had not done more than outline the first few chapters. Brigid was so worried about her partner's aunt that she refused all assignments that would require her to travel, and was toying with the idea of applying for an editorial position at the news magazine just so she could stay in one place. Melinda was quiet, conserving her energy, but dreading what this final test would reveal. She felt the hand of mortality heavy on her shoulder, and wondered if her will was up to date.
The hour finally arrived, and the foursome gathered in one of the examining rooms as Dr. Adams and his nurse readied Melinda Pappas for the test. "This is the nerve conduction study," he explained as his nurse cleaned areas of Melinda's skin and attached the electrodes. "The purpose is to see if the small electrical shock travels along the nerves to the muscles. Miss Melinda, you don't take any blood thinners, muscle relaxants, or have a pacemaker, correct?" She shook her head. "Ok, let's begin the test."
An hour later, Dr. Adams ushered the women into his comfortable office, waving them to a group of chairs rather than his desk. He took Melinda's hands in his, and said, "I'm very sorry, Miss Melinda, but the tests show that you are losing nerve function. I can think of several conditions that would cause this, but I am tentatively going to say that I'm afraid you have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known simply as ALS or Lou Gerhig's disease. We don't know what causes it, and unfortunately, there is no cure, just things we can do to keep you comfortable and functioning as long as possible."
"Are you sure, Dr. Adams?" Helen asked anxiously.
"Not completely, but the symptoms are the same. It's the weakness in the hands first that threw me, but when she started having trouble eating and talking, a bell started ringing. Miss Melinda, I recommend home health care, and I'll call the local ALS society to help you all with what to expect and how to help you."
Melinda grew to hate the sound of the blender in the kitchen, knowing that Helen or Brigid would be blending her meal. Some foods were easier than others, but some, like okra, would not hit that magical consistency that would allow her to swallow without choking. Her speech continued to get worse, forcing her to use her laptop to communicate with her nieces. She had insisted that they make appointments with her lawyer and accountant the day after the test with Jonas, and had updated everything with new documents. She hated it that Helen was seriously considering applying for a sabbatical from the university, and that Brigid was working from home more and more just to cope with her problems. She could feel herself losing ground every week, and wondered how much longer she would be able to walk.
It was a shock to get the final diagnosis, but Jonas originally thought it would take years for her to worsen, not weeks. At least Kelly had died before this happened, and she had come home to St. James. God knows that Janice, rest her soul, would not have been able to cope with her weakness. She thought lovingly of her fiery partner of fifty-seven years, whose life had been cut short by lung cancer. Helen had barely been able to cope with Janice's death, how would she cope with her death?
"Aunt Mel, I have some supper for you," Brigid said as she came into the room with a tray. "I know it's boring, but we have pureed stew, pureed potatoes, and applesauce, just as you requested." Brigid helped Melinda from the bed to the small table, then lifted the plate and bowls off the tray. "I hate to ask, but do you feel like you can hold the spoon tonight?"
Melinda nodded, not even trusting what little speech she had left. She awkwardly lifted the spoon with her left hand as her right arm was completely useless now. Thank God she didn't have to take any medications other than a few symptom relievers since she could no longer drink thin liquids. She listened as Brigid chattered about the latest story she was editing, doggedly forcing her left hand to lift the spoon again and again. The only fun part was some of the exercises she used to try to keep some function, the best was sticking her tongue out. She smiled a little as she thought of the first time Helen had read the instructions to her, and she'd promptly stuck her tongue out, completely out of character with her usual southern lady demeanor.
By now, though, even eating was tiring. She dropped the spoon on the table, and managed to get Brigid's attention. In her slurred voice, she asked for help getting up. This was the worst part, she decided, having to be taken to the bathroom and let someone pull her pants down and up. Brigid took it in stride, but Helen blushed every time. Maybe they needed to get a full time assistant, the girls both looked thin and drawn lately. Damn this disease!
Helen rubbed her eyes, then settled her glasses back on her nose. She knew that she and Brigid both were wearing down, even with the full time aide coming every day to bathe Melinda and help take care of basic needs. She was seeing a streak of white in Brigid's gold hair that had not been there before, and knew that her own dark hair was gathering more silver by the day. She looked at the email she was composing again, then decided to just wait and finish it later. No, maybe she'd better do it now.
This is the hardest thing I've even written, but I thought since you knew my aunt you should get the bad news from me. My dear Aunt Mel has ALS, and the disease is progressing at what seems to be an accelerated rate.
She was diagnosed just a few months ago, and went from still having most of her mobility to using a walker to now using a wheelchair. We had a bad scare this past weekend when she was experiencing chest pain, which turned out to be pleurisy, an inflammation of the thin layers covering the inside of the chest wall and the lungs. She had a build up of fluid, and that had to be drained. She's on an antibiotic IV now, since she can't swallow the pills. Brigid and I are scared that we'll lose her soon. Every time we think we've found something she can eat or drink, she gets worse, and can't swallow it any longer. She's almost completely living on pureed peaches and pureed vegetables, not the most tasty combination.
I know you've kept up with her, and probably wondered why she hadn't emailed you lately, but she doesn't have the strength to push the keys any longer. Her throat is affected, and she can't talk. We're communicating by having her point to letters on a paper keyboard, and she gets frustrated with us when we can't understand her.
Well, send our love to Kate and the children. I hope to give you enough warning for you to come for the funeral.
Your old prof,
Helen reread the email, then clicked on "Send".
Brigid kissed Melinda's forehead, wondering as she did every night if her beloved aunt would make it to morning. She and Helen had rearranged the master bedroom to allow room for the hospital bed that hospice had brought out, and had been sleeping in the large bed that Melinda had shared with Janice for so many years. She slipped under the covers, reaching for Helen's warm body to snuggle up against. She could feel Helen's ribs through her flannel top, knowing that her own were more prominent as well. Even with the troops of nurses and aides coming in, it was very difficult to find enough time to work, eat, and take care of their beloved aunt. She drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
Helen felt her partner snuggle against her back and drew Brigid's arms tighter around her. At least she had been granted the sabbatical and could stay with Mel full time now, treasuring every moment left. She knew she was getting very run down physically and emotionally, but refused Mel's request last week of sending her to a nursing home. Hospice had supplied morphine patches and some oral painkillers, which kept Melinda quiet and free from pain. But her aunt had refused a feeding tube just a couple of days ago, spelling out her explanation that she had a living will and had decided it was time to leave. Helen reached up and touched the chakram pendent that Mel had given her after Janice died, knowing that Brigid wore the matching pendent.
Melinda opened her eyes and saw the ghostly figures of Janice and Kelly holding out their hands. She struggled to take a breath; she knew her life was ebbing away. She managed to groan loudly enough to wake up her beloved nieces, who rushed to her bedside. She forced her voice to work, looking from one face to the other. "Good night," she managed to say distinctly. She let go of the breath, and rose up from the bed to join the crowd that was waiting for her in the light.
Helen stood, still holding her aunt's hand as she heard Brigid stifle a sob so she could phone the hospice nurse. She suddenly remembered what she'd heard Melinda tell Janice every night for decades, "Good night and sweet dreams, my love." The grief would come soon, she knew, but for now, she simply whispered to her aunt, "And good night, sweet dreams to you. We'll see you on the other side."
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