I pulled up to the curb and parked, checking the numbers on the house to be certain of the address; this was my last visit for the day and I was tired. It had been an intense one: in addition to seeing regularly scheduled patients, there had been a death to attend; someone with a pain crisis; and a grieving family to see who were unraveling with conflicting and painful agendas around their dying father and needed time to talk and be listened to. I checked my watch. I was a little early, so I sat in the car and closed my eyes for a few minutes, to let my mind settle and give my body time to stop its internal humming.
The air was brisk; it was a dark, gray, winter day, and the sun was beginning to sink below the horizon. I knocked on the door and her son greeted me with a warm smile. As soon as I entered the house, I paused—breathing in the unexpected calmness. I had come into a place of sanctuary. A fire was crackling in the fireplace. An old dog was curled up, snoring in front of the heat. Classical music was playing—a violin—perhaps Vivaldi. Tendrils of earthy fragrance from freshly baked bread drifted in from the kitchen. His mother was close to dying, but there was no detectable weight of sadness in this home.
I quietly slipped into her room, illuminated only by the soft glow of countless, flickering candles. I walked over and sat in the chair next to her bed. Leaning forward, I took hold of her frail, cool, outstretched hand. She was cocooned in soft, fleece blankets and big pillows that cushioned her gaunt, eighty-pound frame. Though her body had almost dissolved, her radiance filled the room. I was drawn in like a bee to honey. As I sat beside her, her soft eyes looked deeply into mine, and we sat there for a long time, not speaking—just gazing at each other.
Finally, her surprisingly firm voice said, “Hello and who are you?” she asked, smiling. “I’m Candace, a nurse from hospice,” I replied. “I’ve come to see how you are feeling today?” “Wonderful. Couldn’t be better. Fabulous, in fact. I feel like I am at a very posh resort. I’m spoiled; they take good care of their customers here,” she beamed, looking first at her son and then her daughter-in-law.
She reached out to pull me closer, fingering the turquoise pendant hanging around my neck. “That’s a beauty,” she said. “Yes, it is,” I responded. “Would you like to have it?” “Nah. . . I’m dying you know. No more need for bling,” she replied, with a twinkle in her eye. “How is your pain?” I inquired. “Tolerable. They have heavenly drugs in this place. My, oh my!” she replied, rolling her eyes and laughing.
“I’ve also come to change the dressing over that pressure sore on your bottom. Would you mind if I did that?” I asked. “I wouldn’t mind, but I don’t want anyone else looking at my bony butt,” she teased. “I’m very vain, you know.” Her son crawled into bed with her and—ever so gently—turned her over onto her right side facing him and held her close while I carefully replaced the dressing. “Isn’t he the best son!” she exclaimed, as they nuzzled each other. When we turned her back over, her eyes closed. It didn’t take much to tire her out. I knew that she was in pain, and I gave her a dose of morphine. I continued to sit quietly by her side. She had reeled me in like a big fish, and I was caught in her spell, not wanting to leave.
Reluctantly, I returned to the living room to finish my notes. Her son joined me. “She is always like that,” he chuckled. “Everyone who sees her can’t leave, and when they do they feel like they were the patient being cared for by her. She whammies everyone. She has been the best mother anyone could have ever had. There is no unfinished business between us, and now, in these remaining days, we just enjoy and love on each other. When she isn’t so tired she sings me songs that she used to sing when I was a little child. I have taken a leave of absence from work because the most important thing I can do in my life right now is to accompany her on this final journey. It’s a small way for me to repay her kindness,” he said with tears in his eyes.
The visit was over and I bid them goodbye. One week later I received word that she had peacefully passed away in the arms of her son and daughter-in-law. They asked hospice to not call the mortuary until the following day. They wanted time with her body, as they had promised her they would carry out some ceremonies after she passed.
Twenty-four hours later they called me. “You seemed to have had such a strong connection with my mother,” he said. “Would it be possible for you to come and help us bathe and dress her before the mortuary comes?” “Yes, of course; I would be honored. I’ll be right there.”
When I went to her bedside I was struck by how peaceful she looked. We bathed her in rose-scented water and rubbed her favorite lotion all over her body. Then we dressed her in a silk, turquoise dress that she had worn to their wedding last year. They picked flowers from the garden which they drizzled all over her body from head to feet, a final adornment. Now it was time to let her go…
When I first started working in this field I received some very sage advice from an older hospice nurse. It was a gem. When you take time before entering a house to pause and empty yourself of personal agendas and expectations, you are open and more receptive to what a patient has to give you: that it’s not just about what you are offering to them. . . From this extraordinary woman—whom I was with for only one, ever-so-brief hour while she was alive—I received the gift of witnessing that it is possible to face death with humor, boundless love, grace—and without fear.