His eyes were closed, peaceful. Pale and gaunt with a few days’ stubble on his chin, he lay in his living room of forty years, on a bed contracted by the hospital equipment company.
“Is he gone?” asked his wife, standing just behind me, her voice quiet.
My left hand on his, my right pulled the stethoscope from his chest. I nodded, “He is.”
A deep sigh caught briefly in her throat and then escaped raggedly, “And what do I do now?”
I straightened and offered her a hug. I had never met her before this early morning and though I never assume that a hospice patient or family is comfortable with displays of affection, it was clear by her eyes that she was in need, and desired some human contact. I considered her question rhetorical as she weekly hugged back, leaning into me.
I was there to address the here and now, and she told me that she had called the funeral home. Though five in the morning they would be there within an hour. We both straightened up the room and made her husband look more comfortable. No morbid pulling up the cover over him; no, that seemed disrespectful and dismissive. He was still in his home and his wife would need to wait an hour before the painful event of seeing him taken away.
She told me all about their home and how they had done all of the work to it. They married later in life and were very happy. It was a comfortable and sweetly decorated cottage. I could not find it when I first arrived. It was down the hill from the parking area at the end of a lane. I had been told to go through the gate and follow the path down to the house and so that is what I did. Through the wooden, rough-hewn gate there was indeed a path, very quaint and winding. It led to a fairy-like world of honeysuckle, red cockscombs, purple-blue allium, petunias and hostas, to a small stone porch and dutch door.
Hospice nurses help patients in their final days of life, and their families through some of the most difficult times they will ever face. Had I been their regular nurse I would have known more about them, but I was on-call this particular weekend.
She made coffee. It was the only cup I had ever said yes to, as normally there are questions and documentation and duties to perform at a death. But all was done and her suffering required some sort of routine, personal caring and connection, and thus the comfort of a hot cup of coffee. We sat and she told me that her friends would be over after the funeral director left. She told me about how she dealt with and viewed death as a Jehovah’s Witness. In that hour which could have seemed uncomfortably long, we bonded. I have not seen her since then, as my family moved soon after and I stopped working for that hospice. But I will always remember her.
Her religion, views and life were different than my own, and yet humans will each experience the death of a loved one at some time, and we shared that. I could comfort her and help her to explore both the immediate and rhetorical inferences of her question, “What do I do now?”
Though we all have small and great differences, I am not sure I would use the word “tolerate” in how we are supposed to deal with them. I would use words and phrases like: listen, seek to understand, make some common connection, find a point of agreement, and compassion. That morning a woman experienced one of the very hardest things in life. I learned about that life, her love, and her faith over a cup of coffee. Soon the gate built by her loving man would open to those who would soothe her at his leaving.
Her husband’s soul would rise up the garden hillside through that earthly, wooden gate and on to a celestial one, opened because of the way he lived his life.
The paths of two women with different lives converged for a moment in time, and I am fairly sure that I was the one helped more.