You Are My Sunshine

empty wheelchair

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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.

_________________________________________________________

You Are My Sunshine

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.

Dancing with Chopin

Classical music? I was never a devoted fan, but one of my patients changed all that, enough so that whenever I hear Chopin, she is all around me.

Victoria was a middle-aged woman, petite, cultured, attractive – a lady in the truest sense of the word. She was devoted to her husband, her adult children, and Chopin. When I met her, she had suffered with ovarian cancer for 3 years (a feat in itself), and after exhausting traditional and alternative medicine treatment regimens, her only hope lay in getting included in a clinical trial, which was by no means certain.

She came to her first session wearing a designer suit, heels, a perfect manicure and a beautifully coiffed wig. She exuded poise and sophistication. Victoria chatted for a bit in a conversational manner, almost like she was at a social event. Suddenly, she stopped, then took a deep breath. Her words came out in a rush. “I never thought about dying.”

I sat, silent. She paused, struggled for breath and begged, “Don’t make me say that again.” She dug into her purse, found a small bottle and asked my permission to sip. The dark blue liquid, a derivative of the potent narcotic morphine, helped settle her labored breathing. She sat, her eyes filled with quiet fear. It seemed as if those words had been torn from her against her will, and now, she wanted nothing more than to take them back.

I assured her we did not have to “go there,” and we moved to safer ground.

At Victoria’s next visit, she chatted only briefly before the quiet fear returned. Her eyes welled up with tears, and as she dabbed them with a lace handkerchief, she apologized. I quietly remarked that whatever feelings she had were okay. She looked at me in disbelief, her voice quivering. “You mean I can cry?”

Pain pierced my heart and I could only nod. With that, Victoria covered her face with her hands, leaned into her lap and sobbed, her body rocking back and forth, wracked with grief. I wanted nothing more than to reach across the space between us and hold her, comfort her; the depth of her emotional pain was palpable. Instead, I visualized holding her as she cried. I could literally feel someone else’s arms (…wings?…) on top of mine, holding us in a Circle of Grace.

In this shared moment, we dwelt on sacred ground. No interventions other than love, compassion and presence were needed. It was enough to simply be with Victoria.

The following week, Victoria came into the room with renewed energy, a huge smile and a torrent of words. It was as if a dam had broken somewhere in the deepest part of her, and everything that had been buried, was now free. She announced that she was no longer afraid to die, and went on to describe a recent dream. In it, God introduced Victoria to her soul. She described it as a whirling, white mass of energy that spun round and round so quickly that it emitted shooting, golden sparks. Her eyes shone with excitement and her smile seemed even bigger. Victoria seemed almost childlike with the wonder of meeting her soul. “Best of all,” she confided, “my soul danced.”

My excitement mirrored hers. I recalled the woman of last week, who cried because with her tumors, she could no longer remember how to play Chopin on her piano. I had to ask. “Your soul; was it dancing to Chopin?”

“Yes,” she answered quietly, her eyes meeting mine, filled with a new-found peace. “Yes.”

I pictured her dancing effortlessly, joyous and cancer free, as the chords of Chopin echoed all around us.

Not quite 2 weeks later, when Victoria missed her appointment, I sought out her oncologist for an update. Victoria had taken a sudden turn for the worse, and was in the hospice unit on another floor. Almost as an afterthought, the doctor added that she only had a few days left. I went directly to her room, where her husband and adult children were keeping vigil around her bed. When I hesitated, her husband told Victoria that I was there, and she motioned me toward her side. She had lost more weight, and every movement seemed a huge effort.

I took her hand and looked at her, unable to speak for the tears. Her eyes met mine with a wisdom and peace that suited her, a mantle she wore comfortably and with her usual elegance.

She gently pulled me closer and whispered, “I love you.”

I just shook my head, still unable to say a word. With all the strength I could muster, I squeezed her hand. “Chopin – you will be dancing to Chopin…”

Victoria smiled as she nodded her assent, then closed her eyes. Even this small exchange left her spent.

I leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Thank you for the gift of you, Victoria. Our time together has been a privilege, and I keep you in my heart,” I said quietly. Having said my good-bye, I turned and left.

Be well, Victoria, and move on with my gratitude, blessings and love. Your soul graced this earth with beauty and brightness. You will be missed. You will be remembered.

Dance with abandon.

And thank you for introducing me to Chopin…

Sacred ground. So many moments in our lives, unaware, we dwell on sacred ground.