Is Your Purse Empty?

two handsThe patient was about to die.

The hospice nurse said it would be soon.

The social worker, though not a medical expert, had visited dying patients on many occasions and agreed with the nurse’s assessment.

The adult children who’d traveled back home and the patient’s sleep-deprived husband were sad, but understood. The family didn’t—like some do—fight about their wife and mother making one more trip to the clinic for one more treatment to battle the illness. They didn’t argue about “forcing” her to eat and drink more. The hospice team caring for this beloved wife and mother had become an important part of the family’s exhausted, already grieving lives. When these professionals said there might be her final hours, there was no reason to doubt or debate.


And then she woke up. The patient, who hadn’t spoken for days and hadn’t eaten for even longer, made a request that didn’t surprise any of her hovering, hurting family.

“Bring my purse,” she said.

Her career had been in finances. She’d raised her children as well possible, participating in PTA meetings and packing thousands of school lunches. She was, according to the family, a no-nonsense person at work but fun-loving at home or with friends.

However, she had a vice. She loved purses.

pursesShe owned purses to stuff a thousand things in, and ones that would disappear into her hand. Any shopping trip to any mall included at least a glance at a rack of purses. She’d donated purses to Goodwill or the Salvation Army when, in the cold harsh light of home, she admitted it was a stupid purchase. But wasn’t there a perfect purse yet to be found? It could contain everything—the phone, the make-up kit, the lipstick, the wallet, the travel-size bottle of Advil, the soda crackers from the restaurant, the breath mints, the faded school pictures of her kids—and yet be as light as a feather while complimenting most of her outfits.

“Bring my purse,” she said.

Then she made another announcement.

+     +     +

But first, I understood the purse request. My wife happens to (really, really) enjoy purses. We have logged hours in stores checking out purses. Don’t we all have our quirks and passions, our prized objects and foolish weaknesses?

Purses. Shoes. Jewelry. Perfume. Tools. Cars. Books. Ceramic angels. Salt-and-pepper shakers.

Me? For years, because of my love for backpacking, I sought the perfect tent. No, I really mean the perfect (in plural) tents. I needed lightweight shelter for solo hikes, another with room for group hikes, and then a tent for . . .

Admit it, you have some “special thing” you just must have.

+     +     +

There is no one answer to why people, literally at death’s door, become alert. And there’s never a guarantee it will happen. She had gone through treatments for her illness, had years of remission, had felt great optimism and been told—more than once—the worst news. But now all of the brutal treatments and trips to stark clinics were done. Just the dying was left.

And then she woke up.

She whispered to the nurse, when the family was out of the room, one more thing about purses. She was alert now. She’d sipped water, and had nibbled on a stashed away soda cracker from her purse. Though speaking softly, her voice was confident.

“I’ve got to empty my purses,” the patient said.

The nurse—a veteran of hospice work who’d witnessed much in the final moments of her patients’ lives—knew this woman had just spoken (here comes a fancy phrase) metaphoric language.

Metaphoric language matters and is revealing. We talk of going home to heaven; of family being like a safe harbor; or about the swing low, sweet chariot arriving soon to take us away.

Somehow the patient, who should’ve died days before, had a second chance. She hoped to “empty her purses.” Was there someone she needed to forgive? Was there a secret to reveal or a memory to relish one more time? Was there a hand to grasp or a note to write?

It doesn’t always happen. Hollywood may give us sweet endings (with a stirring soundtrack). A Google search reveals famous and infamous last words. Benjamin Franklin’s daughter, when the old inventor of objects and nations was near death, told him he’d breathe easier if he changed positions. Franklin’s reply was, “A dying man can do nothing easy.” Murderer James W. Rodgers was put in front of a firing squad in Utah and had a last request: “Bring me a bullet-proof vest.”

This purse-loving, purse-pursuing, purse-buying woman lived several days more, and—so the nurse said—shared some precious, final moments with her family.

Not everyone needs to “empty a purse.” Many have said what they wanted to say and listened to all the ones they hoped to hear. But maybe you’re someone still needing to speak up or to patiently listen. Are you? And of course, that’s the predictable moral-of-the-story about a dying woman’s second chance. Though predictable and obvious, I can’t improve on its truth.

Most spend too much time (and money) accumulating.

Far fewer take the time to empty a purse or two.

(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.)

Hand image from Laura Segall for The New York Times

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  1. Loved your story of emptying purses.
    My story was different. My mom loved her purse and kept it nearby wherever she was. It was a treat bag of gum and coins for us kids, always having what we needed, from a pen to perfume.
    At her last few days of life in skilled nursing facility, she was a little worried that her meager things would go missing. I had the feeling that worry would get in the way of mom letting go.
    I asked her if I could take her purse home to keep it safe. She said ok. When I returned home I received a call saying mom died only minutes after I left her. I feel she finally felt things would be safe and taken care of.

  2. My uncle carried a beautiful leather wallet that had gold embossing. My aunt used to tease him that his wallet was heavier than her purse. When he was in his last few days, he asked his family to gather and he slowly went through that wallet handing out the contents to his family and friends. He had special cards, pictures and momentos for everyone. It was described to me like watching Santa pulling gifts out of his bag. My aunt has the now empty wallet on her mantal in a special glass sealed box.

    • Thanks for sharing this! Hey, maybe what he did was even better than old Santa?!

      And it doesn’t surprise me that your aunt keeps his wallet displayed in a place for her (and others) to see and remember.

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