There is the power of healing even when caring for the very sick and dying. Healing is a word that encompasses much — healing of the heart, soul and body. It’s ministering to all three, and its success is in the hands of those who give the care. But its destiny is in the hands of God.
At the bedside, it was my patient and me and my accountability was to them alone, unseen by others. Many of our patients, but not all, started on our oncology unit newly diagnosed when a sense of hope still prevailed in the days where treatment was not that hopeful at all, and was brutal.
We saw them through those treatments until their final admission. This was during the time when the beautiful bloom of Hospice was just a seed, and people came to the hospital to die.
I was 19 the first time I brushed the hair of a chemo patient off her pillow. She was so very sick, and I sat with her on the side of the bed, holding her body against mine as she wretched, gently rocking her when she was done. Long dark hairs covered her pillow and I reached over to brush them off so that she wouldn’t see them.
I knew in my heart, like many of the women who worked with me, that I didn’t want to be anywhere else, but comforting that woman at that moment in her life. And so it went, patient after patient, relationships formed, and then lost through a deadly disease, or stroke or other illness.
Family became our family, recipes were shared over the beds of the very sick. Homemade soups sipped, special treats tasted. Stories spoken, pictures displayed. Memories shared and made. Smiles spread across our patients’ faces as they watched their loved ones talk. Oh, the beauty of it all.
But, mostly for me, and others, it was our patients and us, alone. The gentle rhythms of dying. They say that hearing is the last sense to go, I would disagree, I would say touch is the last sense, and it was the words unspoken through the hand on the arm, the gentle massages, warm bed baths, caressing soft hairless scalps, and the kisses on foreheads.
This time we shared may have died with them, but has lived on in us, and each somehow clings to our hearts and minds and has become a living and breathing thing inside us. No one ever dies completely, they live on forever in those who loved them. Love is eternal.
I hear a lot the theory that everyone is forgotten eventually, but I don’t buy it. I think the carbon of their lives were imprinted on those who loved them forever. These were mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers and friends. They were my patients, and the patients of the other ladies and men who worked with me. They were not famous, they just loved, and were loved, and that was/is enough to honor their memory forever.
I know talking about this is sad for so many, and we baby boomers are now facing the final sighs of our parents and grandparents and maybe even a child or a grandchild or sibling. We weep for the dying and for those who have gone before us.
A friend of mine tragically and suddenly lost her brother a few years ago. She was going to visit his wife and decided to check Google to make sure she had the right address still. She went to “street view” and watched as a car turned into the driveway of his house. She could clearly see her brother in the car, she saw the white shirt he always wore.
Dying is like that image for my friend, we never forget, we can hear their voices, see their smile, hear them singing to that song we loved so much. We taste their love in the soup we make, or see them in the dress we wear. We smell them in the summer heat on the water, or the icy cold.
I know my husband’s grandmother, and carry her love in my heart, even though I never knew her. She lives on in me through his and my sister-in-law’s memories, through the recipes passed down, and the wooden turtle she gave my mother-in-law for a wedding gift that sits on my table and is called Lucy, after her.
Sorrow must have its day, no doubt, it might have to have its months and years, because sorrow is so very personal to each of us. But eventually all that love will be the healing balm and will live on for all eternity.