Before setting out on my lengthy road trip to an outlying area of the county, I had received the warning that the spouse was a“curmudgeon”. He had been overly harsh and grumpy with the staff that only yesterday had him signing forms to bring his dying wife on to hospice services. As I drove past the greening fields with lambs leaping and cherry trees blooming, I was happily ignorant of what awaited the family in the old house, perched above a winding, isolated drive amid farm and field.
I found him sitting in a darkened room next to her bed, gripping her pale hand as though he could prevent her from slipping farther from him. She had her eyes closed but when he said “The nurse is here”, she opened them slowly and barely acknowledged me. I saw a far-away look, filled with yearning. Then she smiled sweetly and lightened the atmosphere of the room.
She told me in a whispered voice, “I love your name”, (it was the same as her granddaughter’s, he explained) and “I am so happy to have you in our home”. I knew immediately, here was a woman, an eternal hostess, who had cooked and cleaned and welcomed many to this quiet country place. She was the embodiment of that expression we use, the “warm stove”, kindness and harmony oozing from her, making the cocoon of her warmth a place to linger and enjoy. No wonder he remained at her side.
We visited a little about the years she and Bob had spent loving each other and family and friends throughout their life together. That reference to a couple being “love” and “will”
floated through my mind, and I was certain she was the love, he the will. I
could picture the house filled with her baking and his home grown vegetables
from the bountiful garden which now lay dormant as his days were filled with
the daily chores of caring for a person who can no longer get out of bed.
I always have the “nursey” things to do when I make a visit, checking this and that and asking intrusive questions and looking at the physical aspects of a person. I care for the body’s symptoms and attempt to leave family members with a sense of confidence about meeting the care needs of their dying loved one; giving instructions is a significant part of every hospice visit. But so often I learn something, and I am certain my patients and families have taught me as much or more than I have taught them. This interconnectedness to the essence of a person: it is the joy of hospice nursing and the most
satisfying part of my contact with each patient and family.
Not every visit has such an overwhelming sense of the “other” part of a patient, but today I was struck with how deep the waters run beneath the surface of a life; and how vast the hole of her loss will be in his life when she is gone. I felt it myself, an overwhelming sadness that this gentle, loving person had so little time left here. When preparing to leave, she pulled me toward her to give me a kiss on my cheek; to me, just a stranger, come to do my job as a hospice nurse. I was gifted with some of the love and goodness that was her essence.
I knew then he was not a curmudgeon, just a simple man who had been loved long and well, and whose life would soon be bereft of the better part, this woman immersed in loving kindness. So little we, any of us, could do for him to alleviate the painful waves of
anticipatory grief, while he grasped a hand with only a little life left in it. But the gift of understanding and compassion is not difficult to share, as all of us have suffered loss. I could leave them both with this.
“The invisible weapon, always victorious, is the incessant act of love” Sister Consolata, 17th Century