Fifteen Minutes With a Dying Man

I started the long walk through Saint Marys from the parking ramp to the patient's room.  The walk made worse by that sterile, hospital smell.  The deeper one goes into the bowels of the hospital the stronger that smell.  More than the smell, but the emotions it triggers.  Trever after the accident.  Troy as he battled cancer.  I absolutely hate it.

Visiting hours would be over soon, so I better get there quick. 

The patient's wife and a nurse were at his bedside when I arrived - working to make him comfortable and adjusting the numerous IVs. 

His wife glanced up when I knocked and she gave me, what I gathered was, a look of annoyance.  I reminded myself to breath, smile, and do what I came to do as I stepped closer to the bed.  I had expected some resistance from his wife as minutes earlier, while talking with her daughter on the phone, her daughter had mentioned her mother was mad at her for arranging someone to come sing.  Perhaps she thought it was more trouble than it was worth, having a stranger visit.  What good could singing a few hymns do for a dying man with late stage Alzheimer's? 

Nerves are easily irritated and strong, strong emotions are just under the surface when someone you love is nearing the end of their journey.   That tension between wanting to hold on to them for as long as possible yet wishing their suffering would be over is almost unbearable. 

I went that evening because of an e-mail received just two hours earlier.  I went because my grandmother suffers from Dementia/Alzheimer's and I imagine someone in Jacksonville, FL holding her hand and singing to her - reaching that part of her that is buried beneath the lost memories and confused state. I went because someone asked. 

I sat on a foot rest in the corner of the room and moved it a bit closer to the bed.  I watched the goings on for a moment.  The patient's wife and the nurse were so active in caring for the patient I wasn't sure if I should wait or just start singing. I opted to just start singing. 

I don't consider myself a vocalist, so it was strange, to me, to sing a capella.  I'm a piano player, remember, and I don't think much of my voice.  Having to sing a capella almost kept me at home. 

Then there was the fact that I'd be leaving the next morning for a weekend of concerts.  Could I really afford the time and energy spent on something that probably wouldn't make much of a difference?

By the time I got into the second hymn, the patient's wife was able to sit down.  Her husband was comfortable enough, for the time being, and she seemed to relax just a little.  I was able to relax a little.  Maybe this wasn't so bad.

By the time I got through "Great is Thy Faithfulness" and into the last hymn, "Amazing Grace," I thought the patient had fallen asleep.  High compliments, indeed, all things considered. 

A peace seemed to settle over the room by the time I closed the hymnal.  Not because of what I was doing, necessarily, but because I believe the Spirit is most active in these settings.  I love doing this because of that...I want to be a part of the work He is already doing and where He is doing it.  Often, in the hospital setting, the veil between our physical world and the spiritual realm is so thin the presence of God is overwhelming.   Hospice care, especially, I believe, is holy ground.

I wasn't sure what to say as I prepared to leave, but I offered what felt like a weak "peace be with you" and walked towards the door. The patient's wife offered her thanks with a smile on her face. 

I left feeling glad I'd come, but I also wondered what, if any, good it did.  I was thankful, though, to be useful. I left with a prayer in my heart for the patient and his family.  What a difficult journey. 

I learned the patient passed away the following week.  His funeral was held days later.

It was on a particularly stress-filled day last week that I received a note from the woman who had originally contacted Humanities in Medicine to request "Music at the Bedside."

 

"I went to the service today at [the church] for [the patient].  The closing hymn was Amazing Grace.  [His daughter] said that was the last song Sarah sang at [his] bedside in St. Mary’s, and that her mother said [he] was mouthing the words as Sarah sang. 

 During the choir rendition of the song at the service today, the sun broke out and spilled through the stained glass windows into the church.  It was really beautiful.

This was all deeply meaningful for [his daughter], and she was visibly moved talking about it today.

Thanks again to all of you for your special touch and amazing graces."

 

I couldn't help the tears as I read the note.  I so often doubt.  I so often question.  I know it wasn't much, but it might have mattered the world, those fifteen or so minutes, to this person.  I hadn't seen him mouth the words to "Amazing Grace," but I trust that somewhere, in his mind and spirit, he remembered the words of that great hymn.  That, maybe, he felt securely wrapped in the amazing grace of God. 

Perhaps, in the end, what counts is our willingness, even in the smallest of things, to simply do something.  Maybe its that little piece of gossip we don't spread, or that bottle of water we give to a stranger, or that meal we provide, or listening without judging or arguing, or maybe a prayer offered in a crisis, or a meaningful word.  Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the big things, of wanting to make a really big difference, that I miss out, or almost miss out, on the small things that really do matter.  

Like fifteen minutes.