She is in her seventies, dying on our hospice unit of some form of malignancy. She calls out frequently, and is what some may call a ‘difficult patient’. Frightened by the journey thrust upon her, she reaches out for any living, breathing, emoting creature willing to spend the minutes, or hours needed for her to discover and excavate the treasures of her life. She is estranged from her family- and oh how it cuts to the very depth of her soul. The isolation is terrible. Silent tears trickle down her cheek as with one hand she reaches out to grab onto my arm, and with the other hand she waves me away dismissively. Not wanting to ‘be a bother’. Of course I only see this half of the equation. She could have relatives that love her deeply- perhaps she is lost in the prison of her own heart. The only thing that I can do at this time is remain, silently a witness to her agony of soul. Bearing witness to a pain that I cannot remove. This is difficult. I can give an injection to palliate most symptoms, but there is no narcotic for a broken heart.
Down the hall, an elderly gentleman, soft-spoken with ocean-blue eyes. Eyes that in their youth saw worlds torn apart- blue eyes and blond hair that became a ticket to freedom as the ashes of family disappeared up through the smokestacks of Auschwitz. Those same blue eyes are fastened upon me as I offer him warm sweetened tea with milk. All he wants to do is hold my hand. “Don’t go” he pleads without words. I want to stay and help him go gently into what I hope will be a good night. I want to rewind time, to give him back to his mother, to somehow atone for his having been left so abandoned in youth. Instead I feed him sweetened tea, and a few teaspoons of yoghurt. For now this has to be enough. Presence without chatter, the comfort of simple human touch.
Some people say “I could never do what you are doing”. The naked truth is that we will all “do” this one day- I have an extraordinary privilege of sitting at the feet of those who have journeyed farther along the path. Sometimes they give me a glimpse of the scenery. There are so many lessons that can be learned from the dying- lessons about life, about kindness, about the power of small moments. Epiphanies happen- they are never planned. I feel like a miner of souls- one who toils in the hidden regions of pain to find the image of God.