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What Served as a Lifeline During My Husband’s Last Days

It was a tonic for both of us.

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It was Princess Diana who inadvertently introduced happy hour to our lives. Late one afternoon, while I was in the kitchen making my husband, Geoff, his favorite blueberry-banana milkshake, he told me that Di had dropped by to see him. They had a nice chat, and he had offered her a cosmopolitan, apparently her favorite tipple. Unfortunately, she left just as I returned with his shake. I said I was sorry to miss her visit.

“Don’t worry,” Geoff assured me. “She’ll be back.”

She was, but I always just missed seeing her.

As my husband’s progressive supranuclear palsy advanced and his physical and mental condition declined, we didn’t always share the same reality. But it wasn’t lost on me that if my husband summoned Di’s hallucinatory presence to bring a bit of sparkle to his life, it was because it was slipping out of ours.

Geoff, the founding editor of Los Angeles magazine, who had spent his entire career writing and editing, could no longer lift a pencil or turn a page. But his mind was sharp; his wit intact. He missed lunch with colleagues and dinner with friends.

Princess Di’s clandestine visits awakened me to the knowledge that neither of us had any activity or social outlet that didn’t involve each other. I couldn’t let a princess crowd our marriage at a time when I was increasingly aware of becoming more caregiver than wife and confidante.

We needed to be around other people — but how, with my husband virtually housebound? I took my cue from the unannounced visits of a royal and began inviting friends to drop by for happy hour.

That meant converting our master bedroom into an appealing cocktail lounge/tearoom, as convivial as Ted Danson’s Cheers bar, “where everybody knows your name.” 

No special equipment, medications or visible reminders of the sort of assistance that Geoff required could detract from an inviting atmosphere where people would feel comfortable to linger and chat. The door to the garden was open; the room was filled with sun.

Before our first happy hour guest arrived, oxygen equipment was wheeled into the adjoining dressing room, along with meds that could easily be reached if necessary. Candles were lit, and flowers arranged, with wine and a bottle of Geoff’s favorite Sam Adams in an ice bucket, next to the snacks.

I hoped with the warm welcome, guests would look forward to coming back — and spread the word among our other friends that we wanted them to drop by.

The two words, “drop by,” were key in assuring visitors that they could come and go at will. I knew from my own experiences how very hard it is to see someone you care about coping with illness and infirmity. Strong emotions are involved, ones we sometimes have difficulty controlling, when visiting a loved one with a terminal illness. I was mindful of friends who might fear their emotions would give way while visiting Geoff, no longer the strong, vibrant man who could once deliver a witty zinger.

Friends who remembered his warm laughter and deep, resonant voice would have difficulty conversing with Geoff, who spoke haltingly, his speech barely audible. I shopped online for a ChatterVox, a portable voice amplifier that came with a headset. Geoff dubbed it the Madonna and would pull the sponge-covered microphone close to his mouth to do sound checks before guests arrived.

With his dry sense of humor and buoyant outlook on life, he’d reassure friends, “No pain, no discomfort. I’m lucky. Could be worse.” Sometimes he’d add, “Look, this is life. We all get something. No one gets out alive.”

I made sure he met his guests clean-shaven and fully dressed in a fresh shirt and pants. Geoff laughed about not wanting to scare people off by looking like an “old geezer” with a grizzled beard and stained clothing.

As his condition advanced I took care in preparing him emotionally and mentally for social visits. Before the doorbell rang I’d remind him who was expected to drop by and prompted him with a memory or story he might want to relate. Playing jazz during our happy hour stimulated Geoff, lifting his spirits and unlocking blockages in his brain that inhibited speech.

We’d already discovered that when his limbs spontaneously “froze” in place, hearing music released the brain blockage that prevented movement.

Caregiving involves concentrated periods of intimacy that require tact and sensitivity. I shared with guests that periods of silence were fine, that touch was as important as speaking and that a hand on his shoulder was welcome. When I sensed that a guest needed private time with Geoff, I took care not to function as a gatekeeper.

I’d putter in the garden or read, close enough to be called if needed, but didn’t hover. These private chats became a significant part of happy hour, giving people a chance to say things they needed to say, to make amends or express gratitude — or just to hold hands in a meaningful farewell. The end-of-life transition is a spiritual journey not just for the departing but also for loved ones.

Happy hour was a tonic for both of us and a lifeline for family and friends. For me, it was a daily reminder to make the most of our time together, with enduring memories to cherish when life resumed in a world without him.

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