On Friday I visited two hospice patients that I have been seeing for nearly five months. They both had lives that were filled with many ups and downs. Both had wonderful family support, a strong faith, and had opened their lives to me and shared vulnerable thoughts, memories, and wounds. Each had found a way to immediately begin sharing when we got together, and like old friends, we seemed to just "pick up" where we left off the last time that we were together.
On Friday, both patients seem to say "good bye," to me. The hardest part about hospice work is knowing that you have been invited in to be with someone in the last months of their life, and because of that, you know from the moment that you meet the person, the person is dying.
My heart seems to know when I am making a last visit with someone. It's interesting how "something," seems to be different in those last days. The struggle between the mind and the body seems to meet the reality that both will cease to work together, and the spirit, which remains healthy, is awaiting a final journey. While COVID has changed so much of what I do as a chaplain, on Friday I discovered a closeness with both that seemed to make us forget that I was wearing a mask, a face shield, and noting the physical distance that now has become part of my second-nature.
My heart knew. Maybe that's why when I left their homes that I drove down the street a few blocks to where they could not see me pull to the side of the road. Where I could then feel the ac on my face, as I wiped a few tears away, seeming to allow for the visit to completely "sink in."
I will admit, sometimes I get really tired of saying, "good bye," but I am also honest with myself, realizing that I probably would have never have met these patients had it not been for their life-limiting diagnosis. No, they were living their lives, raising their families, still working on projects, and making plans. I often wonder what it would have been like to meet the person when they were in their "hay day." Instead, I find that treatment options have been exhausted, their bodies are tired, and their minds are trying to make sense of what it will be like to finally succumb to the illness they have worked so hard to overcome.
My heart has grown to know when the person finally surrenders. Life in itself is a gift. It is poured into us, like the breath of God blown into the original dust, and I am reminded over and over again, that it will one day no longer sustain the body we have. At some point, the mind and the body realize that it will never win, and that death is part of the plan to allow for peace.
My heart is not immune to the reality that this will be my journey as well one day. Believe me, I have considered a number of diseases that I would not mind succumbing to, and how I would prefer to die. I guess it is a hazard when you work for hospice. I realize that dying well means that you seem to have a grace about the process. That fear is contained within the realm of faith, and that with the first step beyond this life is planted firmly in the next. When the last breath is released, that there be a lesson taught about how to die with dignity for those who are present, if any, and that the words being shared by those who are left behind are focused on what eternity will mean for us all.
As I start my morning, I realize that I will be calling the families of both of these patients, as both died yesterday.
My heart will know their pain, and will listen as I thank them for allowing me to come into their home and to be present with them. I will remember the hospitality that was offered, the laughter, the tears, and I will listen to what this "first day" without the person is like.
My heart will know their loss, and I will find myself at the doorstep of the next person that I am to journey with.
Stay in God's grip!
G. Todd Williams (c) 2020