Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Front row seat
NB: This was part of the meditation I gave at this morning's Hospice Interdisciplinary Team Meeting
Yesterday, I went to visit Ms. Josey. I had called the previous Friday and had spoken with her older sister, who had left her home in North Carolina and moved into her sister's home in Delaware to care for her. She was a bit hesitant about allowing me to come, stating that Ms. Josey had "taken to her bed" - a euphemism I've heard some Hospice patients and families use to mean "preparing to die" - and was very drowsy, hardly eating or drinking.
After hesitating, she said, "Why don't you come anyway, dear," she said. "We can always use prayer."
I arrived and was warmly welcomed into the home and escorted to the back of the house to Ms. Josey's bedroom where she appeared to be soundly asleep. Her older sister was quite persistent and fairly vigorous in rousing her, which surprised me.
Ms. Josey was not pleased - either to have been so rudely awakened by her sister or to see me, the very earnest but nonetheless Caucasian Hospice Chaplain who had visited her two weeks prior and was back again, like a bad penny.
I asked her some preliminary questions - Was she in any pain? Feeling any distress? - and we chatted a bit before I asked her if she'd like me to pray with her.
She looked me square in the eye and said, quite clearly but politely, "No."
Several thoughts flew through my mind, including the fact that Ms. Josey might have "taken to her bed" but she was not exactly ready to die. In fact, I suspected she might be feeling some anger about that and simply didn't want any of God's representatives anywhere near her right now, thank you very much. I was also quite sure she wasn't too very pleased with her bossy older sister.
Ms. Josey looked at me, made a face, waved her hand and said, "Well, g'won. Pray, if you want."
Her older sister cleared her throat and gripped her hands tightly on the bed rails. "Yes, pastor. Please do pray with us. Do you have some psalms in that pretty red prayer book you got there?"
"Why, yes, ma'am. Yes, in fact, I do," I said.
"Well, then, I think we need to hear Psalm 23. And, probably Psalm 130 would do. And, I think Psalm 139 and, oh, yes, you absolutely must read Psalm 121. You know, the one that starts, 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?' Don't you think that would be inspirational, Josey?"
Ms. Josey shot her older sister such a filthy look as to make us both blush. And then, she looked at me, smiled weakly, waved her hand, cleared her throat and through grit teeth said, "Yes, thank you. I would like that."
Yes, I dutifully read through the psalms.
Yes, every last one of them, just as instructed.
As I did, however, I thought to myself that, clearly, it was the year 2014 but, in that room, in that moment, it was really somewhere in the early 1950s.
I knew these were two elderly women, one of whom had "taken to her bed" and was preparing to take her leave of this life while the other was doing her best to tend to her needs; but in that room, in that moment, they were just two young sisters, squabbling and fussing at each other the way they had always done all their lives.
But, in between the squabbling and the fussing, there was no doubting that these two sisters loved each other. Indeed, they loved each other so much that one had left her home in North Carolina to come and tend to her sister who had taken to her bed and was preparing to die.
As I looked up from my reading every now and again, I saw them look at each other, exchanging glances and smiles. I saw the older sister loosen the grip of anger on the bed rail and take her sister's hand gently in her own. I saw the anger melt from Ms. Josey's face, replaced by a warm smile.
I imagined some of the scenes from some of the chapters of their live spill out between them - shared, treasured memories that would surround them now and return to provide comfort to the sister in her grief even as these stories followed Josey on her way to eternity.
And, I thought, how absolutely amazing that we, Hospice nurses and social workers and chaplains, get a front row seat to the unfolding of the stories of people's lives.
It's an incredible honor and a privilege, one that we may lose sight of when we're in the midst of doing the often mundane tasks of our particular disciplines.
In so doing, our patients and families help us to remember the love that compels us to do this work in the first place. We who love life so much and cherish it so deeply, love people to the end, so they may be reborn into the new reality of eternal life.
And, through it all, we get a front row seat to all those stories and all that love.
It's pretty amazing, when you think about it.
We are richly, deeply blessed in this work we do.
It's important work - even the seemingly insignificant stuff - like, for example, reading psalms under duress.
It's holy work, no matter our religious preference or spiritual expression.
Sometimes, we just need to remember that.