For those of us of the baby boomer age, the truth is that we’ve had the opportunity to be a part of a lot of positive changes in this world. I am sure that most of us can look back and say that we have really enjoyed our lives.
One of the sad realities of being a baby boomer, though, is that it’s not uncommon to read about or experience the death of longtime friends or associates.
I now find myself scanning the obituary pages of the newspaper in Annapolis where I grew up.
This past week I saw the name of one of my old high school friends on the list. It brought back memories of some of the patients I worked with when I spent a few years with a hospice in Arizona.
This is the story of one of my patients that touched me in a very special way. Maybe you have had someone who has done the same for you.
Many times I had the special opportunity to have been a participant and a witness to a miracle or at the least an example of the strong determination and will of the human spirit while I worked with hospice.
At least twice every day I made rounds in the Hospice House to visit and talk with our patients who were there for just very short visits of respite care. There was not a single time that I had done this that I had not left without a definite emotional reaction. Sometimes it was a smile, sometimes I wiped away a tear as I smiled, but nevertheless I smiled knowing that I had just visited someone who has chosen to go into their sunset with a sense of dignity and peace.
On one of those visits I stopped in to see one of our patients, whom I shall call Mary, who was in her eighties. When I first entered her room, she was reading a large print edition of “Readers Digest” and clutching a faded green, stuffed teddy bear, the kind you might purchase at the Dollar Store.
As we began to talk, her eyes were darting about and she appeared frightened. She shared that she didn’t feel anyone loved her nor did anyone care. This surprised me. I inquired about her family and she related that she did have one although I knew that this was not true.
We talked for awhile and I assured her that her family did love her and that her new extended family at Hospice certainly loved her too. I reached out and touched her hand. She grabbed hold and held on tight, obviously eager for a human touch. When I finally had to leave, I told her I would see her again the next morning.
That next morning her spirits were much improved. I stopped in again that evening and again we talked. She held up the stuffed bear, which seemed to be her best friend and told me that she loved her little bear. It was a kind of an ugly looking bear with a half-smile, whose fur was worn and faded, but she clung to it.
She expressed fear about being alone which we discussed, and she admitted she did indeed have a family and shared photos of them with me. As we sat together, I began to understand her fear. I reassured her again that her family loved her and just because they were not present every minute didn’t mean they didn’t love her. I tried to explain that they had responsibilities and their own families who also needed their attention. I pointed out the many beautiful cards expressing her family’s love and encouragement that adorned her room. I explained how their hearts were always there with her when they couldn’t be there in person and that when her biological family had to be away, her Hospice family was present.
The weekend came and went, and I didn’t have an opportunity to visit again until late in the day on Monday. What I first noticed was that her fear and agitation had increased. Her much-loved teddy bear was missing, so the first order of business was to find it. The bear was recovered and returned to Mary’s tender care. While she calmed somewhat, she grabbed my hand and would not let go; she was holding on to me with one hand and gripping that bear with the other. In my attempts to calm her, I again promised her that Hospice would make sure that she was not alone nor would I.
As we talked more, I learned that she was a very independent woman who raised a fine family and was not used to being waited on. I stayed as long as I could and then called in a Hospice volunteer to sit with Mary – easing her fear and anxiety – until her daughter arrived.
Tuesday dawned and Mary was in good spirit, complaining loud and clear that she wasn’t happy with her breakfast. Normally I wouldn’t be amused about someone complaining that breakfast was awful, but in this instance it made me smile, as it seemed that Mary was being her usual independent and opinionated self again.
Mary had been admitted to the Hospice House to manage her pain. With her pain under control, it was time for her to leave the Hospice House. Placement options were being considered. She didn’t want to leave the Hospice House, but as we talked she welcomed the idea that she would not be alone and would have people around all the time in her new care home.
When I checked on her late that evening, she was clutching her teddy bear again. I walked into her room and I reached down to give her a hug and a kiss. She looked at me with the kindest blue eyes and said, “Thank you Pat.” I melted.
The next day was a busy one. I walked past her room and saw that she was in bed looking peaceful. I didn’t take the time to stop as I thought I had more important things to do. The next morning, as I made my “rounds”, I saved Mary’s room for last. As I entered her room, I saw the in-patient unit nurses hovered over her, and our social worker holding her hand. She looked drawn and pale.
Mary had slipped into a coma and her breathing was labored. My very first thought was how very selfish I had been with my time. I said all the right things to Mary, but when the time came for me to be there for her – as I promised – I was too busy. I sat down beside her and as I held her hand and looked at her the tears began to well up in my eyes and pour down my cheeks.
I quietly said to her, “See Mary, I promised you that you wouldn’t be alone, we all love you and are here for you.” But in my heart, I felt as though I had let her down and it was only by chance that I was there.
But as I discovered with “the many Miracle of Mary,” she must have been able to see into my heart because I felt her forgiveness. It was as if she was telling me, “Don’t worry, I waited for you.” I felt such a sense of peace and as I looked at her, I realized that she was reaching for her final peace with great dignity and grace.
In her, I saw my own grandmother. I wasn’t able to be present when my grandmother passed into her sunset, but through Mary I very clearly saw my grandmother’s image and felt incredible peace. As I pondered “the Miracle of Mary,” I felt a warmth surge through my body.
Mary’s breathing was slowing and I thought that each breath might be her last. In hospice we learned that patients often “hold on” until a family member arrives, or someone tells them it is ok to go. I had been a skeptic.
When Mary’s daughter arrived and I thought that if what I heard was true, then now that her daughter had arrived Mary would leave us. But she wasn’t quite ready.
When I returned to Mary’s room after lunch, I learned that she had passed. In speaking with her daughter, she shared that the mail had come while I was out and that it included a letter from Mary’s sister, who lived in Kentucky. Mary’s daughter read her the letter.
In the letter her sister told her that she loved her and that she should go and be with her parents and her brothers and sisters. When she was finished, Mary took her last breath and peacefully passed on.
As far as I’m concerned that was another of Mary’s Miracles. How did she know to wait until that letter arrived, or how did she even know it was coming? And for sure, how had she known what had been in my heart? How could it be that I saw my grandmother in Mary’s image?
The human body and mind are amazing; I don’t see how anyone could doubt the existence of a Creator of such magnificence.
A friend of mine recently told me he was an atheist. I just shook my head in wonder and I said, “I wish you could have spent two weeks with me at Hospice; it would have been impossible for you to make that statement.”
I remember entering Mary’s room after she died. I noted that she looked so peaceful. She still had that green teddy bear in her arms. It looked as if it was more puffed up and fluffy than usual — its fur was the deepest green. I hadn’t noticed at first but it really did have the biggest smile on its face that any teddy bear ever had.
T. Pat Cavanaugh is the publisher of The News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.