When I was a hospice chaplain . . .
The room reminded me of childhood visits to my father’s mother.
As a child, I hated trips to that grandmother’s home, where it always seemed warm and stuffy. Why couldn’t she open a window or a door? Was that asking too much? Fortunately, in the selfishness of my childish view, Mom and my paternal grandmother didn’t get along. Visits to Dad’s side of the family were infrequent and brief . . . and leaving literally felt like a breath of fresh air as I scampered outside, racing for the car.
Years later, when serving as a hospice chaplain, I entered the home of one of my patients. As an adult, I understood why the elderly kept rooms warm, especially in the fall and winter times. They don’t have the same high-energy, heat-producing capacity of fidgety grandkids. Senior citizens, especially those with cancer, can be more vulnerable to temperature.
So I sat in the warmth, with no interest in escaping, and listened to the patient and her husband in their cozy living room. Unlike prior visits, I sensed something new unfolding for her. It was as if the house’s windows and doors inched open. Wind swirled through.
The patient’s husband volunteered that she didn’t fear dying because she “loved the Lord.” But, sometimes, she felt afraid.
“Why?” I asked. No more. No less. A nudge.
Dying and trusting God buffeted against a lifetime of struggle with her children. Would they grow to trust God like she had? Or had she failed to provide them an example of faith? As the wind of honesty swirled through the enclosed room, she talked of her failures, of how she had hurt the children by her actions. Then, as I remained silent, she shared about progress with several of the children. She had confided her fears with them. They reassured her that she hadn’t failed them. She talked of experiencing forgiveness, of speaking aloud the powerful words, “I love you.” And of hearing those words returned. But what about the rest of the children in her large family? Unsettledness remained with the others.
I invited her, especially with the holidays approaching, to be selfish . . . but not in a childish way. Sometimes, selfishness becomes most selfless gift.
“At Thanksgiving,” I suggested, “when the children arrive, ask to spend time with those you still need to talk with.”
Too often we think the words, but don’t speak them. We don’t want to disturb the other, or we’re afraid the right words won’t be the ones spoken aloud. Before I left, we prayed. Each child’s name was mentioned. When I opened my eyes from the prayer, I saw her tears. Her cheeks glistened, like morning dew on a hillside, like traces of haze as an autumn day cleared.
And then it was time for me to leave.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “Only a human being can say I’m sorry. Forgive me. This is part of our particularity. It is part of what makes us capable of tears, capable of laughter.”
Outside, as in her home, I breathed fresh air.
Sometimes, the winds blow from within. But we can never predict how or when the movement of fresh air and renewed spirits will occur. And yet, just maybe, we can hitch our sails and ride along on the wind’s healing movement as we share with another.
(Like all medical fields, hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with what and how I share about my experiences. Names will be changed and some events combined and/or summarized.)by