Madge repeated the question, again and again.
Did she ask that question on my first ever visit to a convalescent hospital? Probably not, but it’s the first I recall as a young minister. A twenty-something clergy, just appointed associate pastor at a suburban church, nearly everything in ministry was a new experience. I fumbled through serving communion. I over-prepared for sermons. I felt like the kids in youth group knew more than I did, and definitely outnumbered me. My boss, with decades of church work behind him, was a kind man and excellent senior pastor.
In the beginnings of our work together, he took me on visits, introducing me to the congregation. I entered homes, apartments, emergency rooms, hospitals, job sites, lunched at restaurants with church members, and . . . went to convalescent facilities.
The last was the worst. Well, maybe I should say toughest. No, both.
The foul smells mixing with the stark odor of disinfectants; the rattle of wheelchairs and gurneys; the bored looks of underpaid, overworked staff; the endless hallways paved with shiny linoleum.
And there was Madge.
Not her real name.
But it’s a real memory. If Madge’s sterile room, with a thin curtain on ceiling runners separating the two beds, wasn’t my virginal introduction to a SNF—skilled nursing facility—it is my earliest recollection. I was merely a witness, for it was the senior pastor who took the lead in the brief visit. He held Madge’s hand, talked to her about her family, asked how she was doing (she never replied), read snippets of scripture, and then bowed in prayer near the visit’s conclusion.
Madge did only two things during the minutes (which seemed like hours) we were in her room. She was either silent or she muttered that question.
“Why am I still alive?”
Elderly and feeble, she’d outlived most in her generation. Her family rarely visited. She may have had dementia. Once, the senior pastor told me, Madge was a quiet, dedicated church member. In the past, she could be counted on for bringing dishes to potlucks and eagerly helping in committees.
Now, there only seemed that question.
“Why does she ask that?” I asked.
I don’t recall his specific answer, because maybe all answers felt inadequate. If her question was meaningless repetition, influenced by isolation or illness, it was also wrenching for any in hearing range. The senior pastor visited her several times a month. She always asked just that question. I occasionally visited, and heard—again—the question I could not answer.
Because it represented one of my initial frustrating visits in a convalescent facility, I remember Madge. But I also remember because, throughout my ministry, others have echoed her question.
It is certainly a query whispered or shouted in hospice. Some who’ve asked, probably like Madge, had dementia. Indeed, her question fulfills one of the current requirements for a late stage (and hospice appropriate) Alzheimer’s diagnosis: the “ability to speak is limited to six words or less.”
Madge used five words.
I have overheard some answers to why someone is “still” alive:
- It’s God’s will . . . and, of course, God acts in mysterious ways.
- There’s a predetermined date for death, and it’s not her time to die yet.
- He has unfinished business.
- Though her mind is “weak,” her body remains strong.
What answer would you give? What answers have you overheard?
I’ve even ventured an answer I almost believe. Does a person remain alive—even when they are ready to die, or want to die, or it seems their life is without value and there’s no apparent reason to continue living—because it’s important for the people in their life to care for them?
There are similarities between birth and death. In both, we are helpless and need others. And those others who care for us have the potential to change and grow and become better persons because they are tending to another’s needs. That is “obvious” when a parents nurture a baby. And though less obvious when a frazzled adult child tries to care for a dying—and stubborn or sick or both—parent, there is still the reality of vulnerability as death approaches for the hospice patient.
Why am I still alive? is thus answered by saying: So the family or friends caring for the “patient” have an opportunity to serve, to grow, to sacrifice, to give back, to be confronted by their own mortality, to be reminded of what’s important in life, and to . . .
It makes sense, right? Right? I’ve seen examples of the busy, one-day-blurs-into-another adult child being “forced” to care for an aging parent. Eventually he or she realized, perhaps during the dying or after death, how precious it was to be a part of a beloved’s final days. Best-selling memoirs have been published, glowingly describing the transformation from living a “thorny” life to stopping and smelling the proverbial roses because of caring for a dying parent.
But I remember Madge. No one in her family stepped forward to eventually have ah-ha moments by helping her. And I’ve witnessed, in the church members I’ve visited and in the hospice patients I’ve met, many asking this question and there simply was no answer.
I am sorry I have no one-size-fits-all answer about this question.
But I did visit Madge again. The senior pastor continued—until she died—to regularly pray for her by her bedside. And since then, though with many failures, I have tried to be with people when they were hurting, when they asked questions that couldn’t be answered.
Truthfully, I don’t have much of an answer for most of the best and worst questions. But I continue to believe if someone like Madge keeps repeating the questions, I can keep repeating my action of returning to her room, or making a phone call, or sending a text, or reaching out to grasp a hand. I can repeat the honest, heartfelt, heart-aching gesture of letting another know I am with them.
If I can’t do that, then why am I still alive?
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by