Over the years as a nurse Iâ€™ve had the privilege of being at the bedside of many different people during the dying process. One of the most interesting and heartbreaking things Iâ€™ve observed is how capricious it feels to people when they are told they are terminal, and how upsetting the loss of control can be over when exactly they are going to die.
While working in a hospice house some years ago, I admitted a man who was 57 years old. He sat at the edge of his bed looking bewildered. I asked if he could tell me a bit about his diagnosis and he just shook his head, as if he couldnâ€™t still quite believe it.
â€œMy wife and I have spent the last two years building our dream home, and I was laying the last of the slate in the foyer, when I thought I pulled a muscle in my back. I went to the doctor and after a bunch of tests he tells me I have advanced end stage bone cancer and that I have very little time to liveâ€. Heâ€™s absolutely shell shocked.
â€œHow can that be?â€ he asks me. â€œHow can I have felt so good for so long and not even know I have cancer?â€ I just listened. He admitted that he had been tired, and that his bones had been hurting, but heâ€™d always been a tough guy, a man who loved a challenge and could build anything if he set his mind to it. Now here he was, at a Hospice House, wincing at the tiniest bump to the bed that exacerbated his pain.
What do you say to that? There is nothing to say. Life isnâ€™t fair? Here was a guy who lived a good life, paid his taxes, loved his family and was about to enter the next chapter in his life with retirement and a new house, until cancer came knocking.
During his stay at Hospice he was a gracious host to anyone who would visit and he tried to make his exit less painful for his family with his upbeat attitude.Â We all tried to make his time there as pain free as possible and listened to his fears and sadness.Â Â Sometimes just being present is enough.
At the other end of the spectrum are the old ones, who have been waiting their turn, watching all their friends go before them, and they are ready to go, but canâ€™t quite get there.
I placed the aerosol mask over the old womanâ€™s face and started the treatment. It was a strong pain medication delivered in this way to help with her breathing as well as pain. She pulled the mask up to speak â€œWhy canâ€™t I die honey?â€ she pleaded over the hum of the nebulizer. I tried to make her comfortable and smiled.
â€œNo, I mean it, why canâ€™t I die? Iâ€™m tired! Iâ€™m so ready to die, why wonâ€™t God just take me?â€
I wanted to say that across the hall someone is praying for one more day to spend with his wife and kids, but her feelings were just as legitimate, however uneasy to answer.
I told her the truth â€œI donâ€™t knowâ€.
Then I told her what I believe to be true, which is that she is still here to teach someone a lesson. She rolled her eyes and asked what that could possibly be. I answered â€œPatienceâ€? She smiled and we were able to joke a bit; maybe she just needed to tell someone that she was irritated at God for taking his sweet time. Her pain was immense, and yet she was still able to laugh.
One night I was tucking an older woman in to bed and as I did she reached her bony arm out from under the covers and in the thickest Jewish accent whispered; â€œHoney, why am I still here?â€ Again, I had no answer for her pleading eyes. She sat up and started to whimper and I sat at the edge of her bed. She told me her story of being fourteen-years-old and being herded to a barn with her parents and some of the other neighborhood adults. Without speaking the Nazi soldiers swept across them all with machine gun fire. She and her party fell to the barn floor like rag dolls. Then, as a final touch, one of the guards took his bayonet and sliced the face of each person in a row. She was the lone survivor, found by neighbors and taken into hiding with her siblings who had been elsewhere.
The bullet wounds healed and she eventually came to America, married and had children. But in the dark of night, at the twilight of her life, she asked me â€œWhy am I still here?â€ I tried to explain to her that I believe she still had a lot to teach people like me and as I gently pull her long white hair back to French braid it, I saw a long deep scar on her cheek.
Such resilience is a powerful thing to behold.
Each person when they die leaves behind someone who knew them, and on their way out they are leaving us bread crumbs to find our own way, as we all will have to do one day. They teach us lessons about suffering and patience, about acceptance and goodbyes. In the end one thing is clear: we can welcome death, or resist it, but death, like an old cat, will come when itâ€™s ready, and not before.
(The exception of course is suicide, but thatâ€™s another story for another time.)