Waiting for Death
I walked into the room and there he was, in bed, his eyes tightly shut, mouth open, and his breath coming in gurgles. Just two days ago, I’d had a conversation with him, somewhat confused as it was.
“His mind wanders,” the hospice nurse had explained to me. “Could you sit with him for a half hour or so?”
As a hospice volunteer in the in-patient unit, I periodically visited patients and also spent time with family members, already grieving what was to come.
Wayne, who seemed to be in his sixties, told me he used to be a professor. We talked about his students, the papers he’d written, and his love of teaching. Every once in a while he’d want to go look for a non-existent brother. But for the most part he remained lucid.
Sixty years old. Too young to die, the world would say. That’s one phrase that has gone out of my vocabulary. In a world where newborns die and 105-year-olds wake up each morning and wait to die, it’s hard to know what’s “too young” or “too old.”
And now, just two days later, Wayne was in a coma and fast declining. In the dimness of the room, I saw a woman sitting by his bedside. She was almost swallowed by the shadows in the room. His wife, I thought to myself.
I inched closer to the bed. She looked at him, then at me, her eyes full of the questions every loved one wonders about, sometimes vocally, sometimes silently.
“Hi…I am a volunteer. We had a conversation just two days ago,” I offered as a conversation-starter.
“Yeah…I didn’t see this coming. He was here just to get his meds changed. He’s declining…real quick,” she whispered.
“He told me about his students, how much he loved teaching,” I said.
“That was pure joy for him.”
Her eyes filled up. “Come, sit down,” she gestured, pointing to a couch. I accepted.
For the next twenty minutes, she talked and talked and talked. She told me the story of how she and Wayne had met, their first date, their years together, shared joys. It struck me that theirs was a solid, safe marriage. And maybe one of the reasons was because there were no kids. They had had the time and the space to nurture the union.
As she talked, her voice cracked and she started to cry.
“What’s your story? How did you start to volunteer here?” she asked.
It was my turn to share the story of our move from India, the passing of my mother and, eighteen months later, my father. The memories triggered fresh tears. A box of Kleenex sat between us. We passed it back and forth, two complete strangers who were brought together by a moment of impending loss. We held hands. We hugged. We commiserated with each other.
It is our shared stories that connect us. It is the common human experience that bonds us to each other. It didn’t matter to her that she’d never known me until today. Most likely we’d never see each other again. But there was a vital spark of recognition—we were fellow passengers on the same journey and had meandered and stumbled through the terrain of anticipatory death (and actual death, in my case).
A good listener is all you need to be most of the time. A griever is looking for “a heart with big ears” as a friend of mine likes to say. Instead of rushing in with our own stories—and oftentimes we do that to show the other that we’ve been there too—it’s a good idea to let the other vent her sadness, anger or guilt. If invited, share your story. It is in those moments of vulnerability that we go beyond the superficiality of appearances and connect as souls.