Its no secret that I’ve been a hospice volunteer for over a decade now. I continue to see my little piece of involvement in end of life care as a privilege and a gift. I know that when my feelings change, it’ll be time to move on to something else. But I’m not there yet. Even after all these years, sometimes I experience a goosebumps moment.
Recently, I regularly spent time with a bedridden patient and sat with her while her husband got out of the house and ran a few errands. He’d visit with me a bit, make sure she was settled, assure her he’d be back shortly. Then he’d take off to take care of the little things that we don’t even think about. Little things become a logistical issue when you’re a full-item caregiver. While he was gone, she and I would visit until she tired, then she’d rest. I’d stay close, within touching range, in her line of sight, and I’d read a book until he returned. She always woke up when he returned.
One visit, while she was sleeping, he initiated a frank conversation about her death and his own life after she was gone. He said he’d be okay if she just died in her sleep one night, and that their sons would be around to keep an eye on him. And he promised me that he’d take care of himself, that he’d be okay.
The next week, while he was out, she spoke to me about how her husband and sons would manage without her. She said she knew they’d be heartbroken and lonely, but that it would be okay anyhow. She told me she was finally going to see her son again – the one who’d died in a horrific accident decades ago. She said she’d see me again, but neither of us said “next week”. She drifted off to sleep and I stayed by her side, holding her hand feeling bones and warmth and heartbeat beneath delicate skin . Her eyes fluttered open as her husband returned from his appointment. This tiny little bedridden woman flashed me to most brilliant smile then turned her gaze towards him.
We chatted for a bit, then my visit time ended and I prepared to leave. I leaned down over the hospital bed, she and I shared a gentle hug. I turned towards her husband, standing right there. Instead of releasing me from our hug, he pulled me closer, over to her bed. He placed my hand on her shoulder. He said we were going to sing together, God Be With You Till We Meet Again. I’m sorry to admit I didn’t know the words. So I hummed along and listened as she gathered enough breath to get a few of the lyrics out. He, a man very near his ninth decade, sang with the voice of youth. He sang with strength, and sorrow, and utter faith and trust. We ended the song with tears in our eyes, and we said goodbye.
Then, as he did every single week, he asked if I’d taken a look at the literature he’d left for me. Photos and testimonials and pamphlets for a miracle health product which had saved his life. Yes, it was an amway product pitch, each and every visit. That slightly awkward multi-level marketing opportunity provided us a transition from this confidential little life story back to the day-t0-day of the world around us. Plus, you know, it was an amazing opportunity, too.
As I headed towards my car, I heard the click of the deadbolt, just as I’d heard each and every week since I’d starting seeing these two. In the car, I paused before starting the ignition. I reminded myself that goodbyes are part of the deal when spending time with people who are dying. I took a few breaths, gathered my composure, and mustered up some patience for the inevitable highway traffic I was about to face. And I drove off.
Later, I contacted the hospice office and asked for an update on the patient’s condition. I was told that her decline continued but there was no evidence that her passing was imminent. Of course, we never can tell for certain, but there were no changes that would suggest she would die very soon.
But she knew. And he knew. And so did I.
We knew I’d never again enter that overheated room, where she liked the drapes closed for privacy. That I wouldn’t hear about their farm, long since sold, or sift through and admire photos of children and grandchildren. I knew that I’d never again gently deflect his requests for me to share marketing materials with all my friends. We knew that we’d not have another opportunity to thank one another for the gift of our time together.
And she passed away, quietly, in her sleep.