Hospice -- Part 2

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I spent early Monday morning sitting in a room with a dying body.

I had gotten a call on Sunday afternoon that one of our hospice patients—a man I had visited with a few times over the preceding weeks—had taken a turn for the worse and death was imminent. In fact, the person who called me and asked me to take the 1:30 to 4:30 (a.m.) sitting shift didn’t expect the patient to last to my shift.

I went to bed expecting to get a call saying, “You don’t need to come in.” That’s happened to me before. The previous two (and maybe three, I can’t remember for sure) times I had been asked to sit with someone during the night who was dying the call came before bedtime saying, “Don’t come in. He (or she) just passed away.”

The call didn’t come this time. So I got up at 1:10 (waking up five minutes before the alarm went off like I always do—or, almost always), brushed my teeth and threw on some clothes and drove over to the care home. I relieved another hospice volunteer who informed me that—during his three hours on watch—the patient mostly just slept but occasionally called out for a moment and, about once an hour, stopped breathing for a bit and then would start again.

That’s how my early Monday morning went. As the book in my lap carried me across Middle Earth (specifically, from the Gladden Fields to the banks of the Entwash) the man in the bed lay there and breathed loudly. Occasionally he would call out and I would look up to see that his countenance had changed none at all. Once during my shift I thought he had stopped breathing, but as I looked intently at his chest I could see the covers gently rising and falling. So I would say another prayer for the man and go back to reading, anxiously following the elf, the dwarf and the man across the plains of the Rohirrim.

My relief showed up—who happened to be my father—so I passed on the information I had, and I left, expecting to go back to bed and awake to find that someone had called from hospice to let me know the man had passed on. That wasn’t the case, so after breakfast I called the hospice office to find out if there were any news. There was, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. The man I had sat with was still breathing but another man, an infirmed but vibrant man with whom I had recently sat and talked knives, had passed away at midnight. He had been on hospice but his death was unexpected and my thoughts went first to his wife, whose elderly and diseased mind I could envision having great difficulty accepting his departure—moreso than most spouses, even.

I went about my usual Monday and got a call that the man I had sat with was still living and could I again take the 1:30 to 4:30 shift. I was told again that he wasn’t expected to live ‘til 1:30, but I set my alarm and went to sleep. I woke up at 12:45, spent fifteen minutes wondering if I should just go ahead and get up, then suddenly found the alarm going off at 1:15. Brushed and dressed, I was walking through the doors of the nursing home in 10 minutes as it’s only about a quarter mile from my house.

The person I was relieving told me the man had had an especially rough night, though he was calm at the moment. He would remain calm for my whole three hour shift. No calling out, no change in breathing except, now and then, a snore. I read my way into Fanghorn Forest, watched an episode of “Gunsmoke” on a 2 ½ inch screen, and prayed.

I’d been praying all day. I had been praying for the man, but I had also been asking a lot of questions, mostly for myself. It goes against my nature to pray for someone’s death. Even people I don’t like, I pray for their salvation (and harbor the secret wish that it would happen and they would become nice or, failing that, more like me). But here was a guy who—when last I had seen him—had no discernable mind left. His body was failing him. He was confined to a bed in an austere room and probably didn’t notice either the bed or the room. Why should I pray for that situation to continue?

Still, should I pray for him to die? It’s at moments like that, that I find myself praying, “Your will, God.” Even in praying that, though, I couldn’t help but wonder what God’s purpose was in the current state of things. Why do people live on, not just after their body has failed but—in cases like this—their mind, too?

I realized I was assuming way more than I knew. To my observation, the mind of this man was gone, but who was I to make such a pronouncement. When he was calling out in apparent pain, was it just some autonomic function or was he—somewhere deep inside where I can never see—wrestling with God. It’s hard to watch someone in pain like that, but maybe the man’s lingering was a blessing because God was giving him one last chance to come clean. Maybe he was even asking questions and the groans were his response to answers he didn’t like, or answers he wished he had paid attention to years before.

Or maybe the mind really was gone. Maybe the body was just a nutrient-grabbing blob of protoplasm that kind of looked like a human being. Maybe the man was already rejoicing in heaven, being free of his frail skin. Why, then, was that body still going? Why were people getting up in the night to sit with it? Why were nurses coming in every so often to check his blood pressure or administer meds?

God probably rarely does what he does for just one person or just one reason. He didn’t send his son to die for just one of us, after all, but all of us. God may have been working on several people through the demise of that man in the hospital bed. Me, my father, the nurses, the other watchers, the man himself. And I can’t imagine what messages He might have had for those other people, but as I sat there and prayed and wondered whether I should pray for death or life, I was somehow reminded that I was not in charge. What I thought the man needed—death or life, either way—was based on a very incomplete and tiny view of a very large picture. I just had to trust that God knows the big picture and trust myself to him.

Once I realized that, I think I began to breathe easier, just as the man was doing on that second night. Neither of us seemed to be struggling. Maybe we had both succumbed; in which case, maybe both of us had learned the lesson the moment was supposed to bring to us.

My father relieved me at 4:15. By 4:30, I was asleep. My wife graciously let me sleep as late as I wanted—which turned out to be 8:30 (really late for me). As I fixed my breakfast, she told me my father had called while I was asleep to say that the man had passed away at 6 that morning.

If I see the man one day in heaven, I’ll thank him for being one of my teachers and maybe I'll ask what was going on in those last few days.