In my work with the dying I feel so much gratitude, for they have given me so many gifts of loving wisdom and intimate moments of deep understanding and especially comfort and ease about my own life’s sojourn, that I wish to share the story of a few patients, out of the many hundreds I have had the honor to sit with in their last days and moments.
Here are their parting gifts to you.
I will never forget Pauline, a native woman in her late forties who was facing the end of her life, coping with advanced lung cancer.
It was very difficult sitting at bedside with Pauline and none of us, the volunteers, were too keen on taking our turns. From the moment she was admitted to the palliative unit, there was a huge heavy cloud of deep grief around Pauline and it seemed to spill out into the hallway. She would sit propped up in bed for hours staring into emptiness and it was almost impossible to engage her to speak at all.
I always felt a little bit nervous sitting there with her, feeling as though I was intruding on her determined silence and her private thoughts, rationalizing that there were so many others on the unit who would appreciate my visit. And it was in this attitude one night that I got up to leave Pauline alone when she reached out her hand to me and cried, “please don’t go, I don’t want to be alone.”
I sat back down and it was then that Pauline began her story, like a life review as she let it off her chest in a sad and regretful way. Though as she talked I watched her face become softer and the deep lines around her eyes began to ease and I could feel her begin to let go.
Pauline’s life had not been easy at all. She had worked most of her adult years as a bar maid in an old hotel on Hastings St., never marrying, struggling to make the best of things. Her closest friend and maybe her only significant friend had been the bartender who seemed to abandon her at the beginning of her illness, so Pauline was all alone.
The scars on her wrists spoke of an earlier time when the loneliness and the heart break may have been too much to bare. That evening, Pauline let her heart speak and what I began to notice about Pauline was the hardness of her cover, her false self dropped away and a new innocent little child emerged, her true nature transposed, there to behold in all its child-like beauty and then she quietly slipped away a day or two later.
Ben was an elderly Chinese man, long retired from work as a tailor in a clothing factory. Ben was dying with a cancer that was advancing quite quickly. He was in fairly good spirits and had come to accept that he would not live much longer, though his wife was still grieving and struggling to find some justice and reason for the suffering and impending loss of her loved one.
One day in the occupational therapy room, Ben discovered he could paint beautiful figures, especially angels and celestial beings and other wonders in the heavens. He was so touched and inspired by his new found talent that he painted on everything he could get his hands on….napkins, T-shirts, pillow cases and as he worked there was a glow about him.
His finished work, which was so creative and colorful was arrayed all over the Palliative Unit…in his own room of course, in the O.T. room, in the quiet meditation room and in the nurses station as well.
One evening as I sat with Ben praising him for the beauty in his work, he replied that he saw angels all the time and just had to paint them. He exclaimed, “They’re everywhere. They come into my room to change my I.V., they adjust my pillows and cool my brow with a wet cloth, and sometimes they come in just to sit beside me and hold my hand. I hear them out in the hall and I know they are in and out of the rooms of many others. They’re everywhere.”
As Ben spoke to me in his soft and quiet tone, my heart stopped suddenly with a start as I saw on Ben’s face, another face emerging that was transparent and endless and I knew I was gazing at the I Am , the presence within all souls. All those angels, and stars, the suns, the moons and heavenly things that Ben had created were there in his eyes. With a lump in my throat I began to cry, I was so awed by what Ben had revealed.
Ben’s parting gifts to all of us were so Big, even after he departed, there were teary eyes and swollen hearts on that unit for a long time.
Facing The Final Journey
May I be a protector to those who need protection
And walk beside you on your journey home,
May I be an ocean, a river, a stream,
To carry you to the further shore.
May I also be a gentle breeze
A song rising up from the heart,
Reaching my hand up unto the heavens
While holding your hand close to my heart.
May I be a comfort to those in need of comfort
In gratitude for this short stay on sacred ground
May I help you return to the Great Mother
In loving trust until we meet again.