I arrived at the nursing home too late.
My position with hospice was in Loss & Bereavement; that is, to help terminally ill patients prepare for their death and to be available to the families before, during and after the loss of their loved one.
When anyone would ask what type of work I did, and I would answer “hospice,” the reaction was almost always the same – “Oh – I don’t know how you do it – I would never be able to…” With that, they would look down, words trailing off, sometimes physically stepping away from me. I understood.
But for me, being with someone approaching death is sacred ground. No filter, no mask, no falseness. Just that person stripped of everything the world deems important, yet at that moment, more genuine. More authentic. Unpretentious. Beautiful.
When I met Walt, he was a resident in a nursing home. Patti, his aid, brought me to his private room to introduce me. He was in his mid-70s, thin gray hair in wisps around his almost bald head, eyes rimmed with dark circles, face sunken and pale. His wheelchair, placed close to a window, bathed him in sunshine. The photograph on his bureau showed a strikingly handsome man, tall and thin, with blonde hair, casually holding a golf club, looking off to the horizon, smiling.
Now, his body was bent and misshapen, knees drawn up, fingers curled into fists held tight against his chest. His head was angled toward his right shoulder, his whole body ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis. He showed no awareness when Patti introduced me and his eyes – a clear, bright blue that belied his age – never left a picture on the far wall.
“That’s his wife. She died a long time ago. They never had children.”
She was quite pretty, dressed in a uniform that a flight attendant might wear in the early years of commercial flying – perhaps Pan Am or TWA. The only other item on the wall was a handwritten 8×10 sheet with words to the song “You Are My Sunshine” written on it.
“That was their favorite song. They used to sing it to each other,” Patti explained. “He can’t speak because of his stroke, but if he gets agitated, we sing it to him; it seems to calm him down.”
So began my relationship with Walt. I would visit him twice a week – him in his red cardigan sweater, slumped in his wheelchair parked in the sunshine, me seated next to him. I would read to him, talk to him, sometimes just sit with him, while he would look at his wife’s picture. Once, when I hummed “You Are My Sunshine” and gently held his hand, I thought I saw the briefest of smiles, but then it vanished. It was probably just wishful thinking on my part. There never seemed to be any change in Walt’s disposition.
One week, our hospice team was particularly busy with new patient admissions and I was unable to make my Tuesday visit with Walt. On Thursday afternoon, I stopped at the nurse’s station to sign in. As I rounded the corner and headed to Walt’s room, I saw Patti coming toward me, her face drawn and tired.
“Walt took a turn for the worse this morning,” she said softly. “He died, not more than five minutes ago.” She stepped aside so I could enter the room.
I stopped. Walt’s wheelchair was by the window, empty. I’d never seen him anywhere but in his wheelchair. I looked around, searching for something – anything – familiar. My eyes finally found Walt, lying on his twin bed, facing the wall.
I stood at the foot of his bed and said a prayer, but it didn’t feel like enough. I moved the foot of the bed away from the wall and knelt where I could see Walt’s face. His eyes were closed, his wrinkles smoothed out; he looked like he was peacefully at sleep. I reached out and clasped his hand, my fingers gently intertwined in his.
My eyes were drawn to the photo of Walt on the golf course and the one of his lovely wife when she was a flight attendant. I closed my eyes. As if watching a movie, I saw Walt – young, handsome, smiling – get up easily from the bed and walk towards a beautiful young woman dressed in blue. They stood facing each other, holding hands. Staring at each other. Smiling at each other. Loving each other.
With carefree laughter and beaming smiles, they turned and walked away, hand in hand, bathed in golden light. They were together again, as one.
As I looked down at our hands and smiled through my tears, I began to sing.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
Good-bye, Walt. Thank you for the privilege of spending time with you. Go, now – happy, whole, healthy – and rest in peace.