The only things certain in life are death and taxes. At the Hospice of Metro Denver's Aurora Care Center, the days leading up to April 15 went by peacefully and, for the most part, quietly, but death was still in the neighborhood, and some twenty patients, men and women, all elderly, were waiting for their appointments. If you stood in the hallway, out of the way of laundry carts, medical equipment and food deliveries, death wafted gently out toward you, like a smell. And sometimes a smell is what it was: the incontinence at the end of life, or the last breakfast someone would toy with, or the KFC someone's kids had laid in for the long hours of hand-holding ahead. In the night, and in the day, people "passed," "passed over" or "passed away." That's what the staff called it, and that's what they said it looks like. With what it sounds like, you get a little more variety--the rattles, the sighs, the total silence.

From the hallway, it was possible to hear: "Someone? Someone? I seem to have a cough."

"I'll get that cough syrup," the charge nurse said. The man who had requested it was emaciated but in a pleasant humor. Cough syrup was a drop in the bucket of his pain medication. His prostate cancer had spread to the lymph nodes, the brain, the bones. "I'm getting money back this year, it turns out," he told a visitor. "So life is good!"

A guy named Harry was fatigued, the certified nurse's assistant said, while Janice was "fearful, struggling." They put her mattress on the floor so that if she became agitated and fell off it, she wouldn't hurt herself.

"Nurse?" another woman asked timidly. "I've just woken up, and was I snoring, do you think? I live alone, so I never know."

"We have unlimited visiting hours," a staff member told another visitor. "Even for pets. Usually dogs. Fine with us."

In the room where staff and volunteers took hurried breaks, there was always food. It came in themes--deli sent over from a recent widower, leftover birthday cake, Chinese.

"I understand there were deaths over the weekend," someone said.
"Oh? Well, probably," was the answer. Two thousand people had died at the Care Center since it opened five years ago.

A patient named Pauline had asked to be rolled over next to the door of the staff bathroom, and that is where she spent most of the next two days. When her husband came to visit, they argued in the rutted, not unfriendly way of the long-married. When he left, she fixed beady eyes on the reception desk and homed in on the gossip, which interested her much more than well-meaning discussions of death--available any time with a social worker or a chaplain. "Who cares?" she said. "I'm just in here to get something done about my blood pressure. I'll be out soon."

Meanwhile, Pauline enjoyed serving as the Care Center's official cantankerous patient. The only time she needed cheering up was when a troop of well-meaning, and well-amplified, accordionists tried to do it on purpose. "Close the door, nurse," she said. "They stink."

At regular intervals, people would ask Pauline if the bathroom was occupied, and she enjoyed having that piece of information to dispense--"Because when you gotta go..."

"Yeah?" said Joy, the CNA who'd become Pauline's particular friend, partially because of the aide's excellent frozen milkshakes. "Try having to go and also having to change someone's catheter." Joy had been on the job for four hours, during which her duties had been half-menial, half-psychiatric--or, in the case of the milkshakes, both.

"Let's see--I got here at 6:30 this morning," Joy said. "I did the morning care and baths; I went to a team meeting. It's a good job. You get to meet people at an unusual time in their life. You get attached."

A small boy, maybe six, ran down the hall making "vroom" noises with a truck. His mother followed, apologizing.

"He's okay," Joy said. "He's absolutely fine. Someone's family," she added. "Yeah, so. You get attached."

A few miles away, in a modest Aurora apartment building, Eileen, now less than a week from her 88th birthday, remembered Joy, who had given her baths and told her jokes during a recent hospice stay. "That's right, I'm a hospice dropout," she said cheerfully. "I started doing stuff like making my own bed, so eventually I had to leave. But that Joy, she was always poking her head around the corner, making me those milkshakes. What a sweet gal."

Patsy, Eileen's daughter and roommate, continued the hospice-dropout story. The preamble went like this: Patsy's husband had been cared for, and eventually died, at the Care Center, and Eileen had grown to like the place. Two years later, stricken by colon cancer and living in a nursing home, she began to think of checking into the center herself. "She had not been eating too good," Patsy recalled, "and her body just shut down on her. She wanted to be where she was familiar."

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff

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