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.
It takes an understanding heart to be there for someone like Walt. An open heart, for you then understand their journey. For others, their fears keep them at bay, as they should, so that they can also learn to be open.
You have an open heart Theresa so that you can be that calm place for those that do not yet understand. That guide as they release this world, and be given strength as they pass us by and go home.
I am proud that you are able to stand in your truth, and be that comfort unconditionally to others, at a time that they must feel quite fearful, lonely and lost. Your giving from that place within is a light to those that have completed this journey and begin another. Namaste
You give me too much credit. I am privileged to be a part of this; it nurtures my soul. Blessings…
Not at all Theresa. It takes a big journey through life to be able to stand in your truth, that strength within that has been built from the trials of life, and connect with another on that level. Be blessed also, as you do for others. Namaste
This brought tears to my eyes for many reasons. First of all your writing is absolutely beautiful. You have a heart to match it. I agree that being with someone as they pass is sacred. We think of the birth of a newborn baby to be so significant and we must treat death the same way. It would be a privilege to be at the end of someone’s journey in this world.
The last time I visited my grandmother in a nursing home, I decided to sing to her. I had never done this before. Guess what I sang?
“You are my Sunshine”
My mom and I choked back tears as my 96 year old grandma, blind and almost completely deaf, broke out in perfect harmony as I sang. It was a moment I will never forget……or I may someday and hopefully someone will be there to sing to me too.
Thank you so very much for your kind words. I was touched by what happened with your grandmother…no matter what, in the end, it is always about love. Blessings…
It takes a very special person to do what you have chosen to do. Compassion, filled with love and able to give grace to others. Bravery also comes to mind. There is beauty in birth and death, and although I am not afraid to pass I am not strong enough to watch the process and comfort those who are on their way. I commend you. Your story about Walt is a beautiful one. I am sure he is smiling upon you. Bless you.
When people who may be uncomfortable with death say something like, “How can you do this type work?” my answer to them is, “How could I not?” I am blessed.
It’s a comfort to know that someone such as you are there at these times. You preserve dignity by loving the whole person, as they were and as they are. I’m sure there is awareness of this even while some may be unable to communicate that knowledge. It’s what we’d want for our loved ones if we couldn’t be there. It’s what we’d want for ourselves. Bless you.
Each of us deserves our dignity, until our last breath. I hope someone is there to allow me, mine. Thank you. Sending you blessings…
You are blessed as well as bestowing blessings on others. When someone slips into another dimension, there is an aura of peace that accompanies it that is truly as miraculous as a birth.Hospice workers are angels on earth.
Your kindness touches my heart and all those who work with Hospice. With gratitude and blessings…
So beautiful. I had a friend who worked in oncology as a nurse and when asked what he did for a living, he said: “I kill people.” After the shock of this answer, he would then explain that what he really did was would dress up the room to make it beautiful and comfortable for the patient and their family so they could say good-bye to each other. After a few years, he moved from oncology to palliative care… He always played at being the “hard-ass” but we knew better… Like you, he has a huge heart with which he shares his love.
Thank you for this, my friend.
This such a heart-tugging story and very beautifully told. ❤
Thank you so very much…
I have few words to say…other than God bless you for the comfort and hope you bring to those suffering, knowing they will soon leave this world.
This particular story shows how the love and mercy of God is dispensed to the suffering through the hands of his angels.
Alan – I truly feel blessed to have done work with Hospice. So many people are at their best when they’re at their worst, if that makes sense to you. Blessings…
Your last sentence makes all the COMMON sense in the world
Nope you haven’t lost your touch. You’ve made me cry again! What a sweet thing you did at the end and how glorious that you got to glimpse the reunion between Walt and his beautiful wife. Bless you for all that you do for people, Theresa! Hugs, Natalie 🙂
Thank you, Natalie. Sacred ground.
Crikey Theresa, make a bloke cry why don’t you. I shared it around so more people can cry. It’s beautiful.
We can all cry together, Laurie. It was a beautiful moment.
It was indeed Theresa.
My heart is touched in so many ways by this…thank you! Thank you for your beauty…<3
You’re so welcome, Lorrie. This is a privilege…
I think you made me understand…because I was one of those people who thought how hard it must be! ❤ Much love to you!
Such a moving post. What a gift you bring with your understanding, love and knowing that as pass over, life begins anew. A blessing, indeed.
Sacred ground, Eliza…a privileged time.