Iíll never forget how the sweat started on my forehead, dampened my neck and dripped under my arms. I stood before a nondescript door. Number 532 to be exact.
I stood there nervously, fidgeting. I kept glancing down the hallway. Secretly I was hoping someone or something would come along and postpone, or somehow prevent me from putting the key in the lock, and opening the door. My fear of the unknown was palatable. It hung over me like a shroud, creating a lump in my throat that threatened to gag me.
We have a saying in Hospice. ĒWhen one door closes, another opens... but the hallwayís a bitch.Ē Well, guess what. I was in THAT hallway.
Shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, I asked for the courage to be enough. I asked for the courage to open the damn door and just walk in. I asked for the ability to walk in and say hello to a woman Iíd never met. Mrs. A.
Mrs. A was 90, bedridden and suffering from dementia. I knew she couldnít talk or feed herself or even turn over in bed. But what if she was a crazy woman ranting and frothing? My nightmarish imagination was starting to run away with me in alarming fashion.
I tried to remember what our chaplains at Mission Hospice had reminded us. Examine how YOU are feeling and deal with YOUR feelings. My feelings were all over the map. Turning around and walking away seemed a like a very good option. Then I felt ashamed at myself for feeling like such a baby.
I slapped myself back around mentally and toughened up my resolve by reminding myself that I could do this. I was a trained volunteer for chrissakes. If itís true there are no coincidences, then I was standing before this door for a purpose. The immediate purpose was to walk through that door and care for this woman who needed me. That simple. That black and white. That immediate.
Touching my hand to my heart, I took a deep breath of resolution. Putting the key in the lock, I turned and opened the door to a nicely furnished studio apartment with alcove. The bed was back in the left alcove, so I could not immediately see my patient. It took me three or four tantalizing steps of suspense to turn the corner and actually see her.
And what a sight it was.
A beautiful, aristocratic woman was sitting propped up in a standard hospital bed. She had a full head of impossibly thick, luscious white hair, stylishly done. More phenomenal were her clear, piercing blue eyes. They surveyed me coolly with equal amounts of curiosity, fear, wonderment and total detachment.
She was a very living presence. That surprised me. She may have been physically helpless but this was no powerless entity. Despite her near skeletal body, she retained an air of innate refinement. Oddly, I felt like an unworthy intruder who should kneel and beg admittance.
She was alone in the apartment of course. Although this is not a normal situation for a hsopice patient, her children were determined that she remain in her condo, as she had wished. She had caretakers 24 hours a day, but they came and went, after feeding, and changing on her. They had left and would return later to check up on her. The bedclothes were clean, her nightie fresh, the hospital rails up, the TV on. But alone. Totally alone, unmoving, silently playing with the sheet, waiting on an interior timetable.
A bit stunned, I walked over to the bed with my books. I had taken the ancient anthology of world poetry thinking I could find some old time verses to soothe and possibly entertain her. I reached for her hand. Her grip was like a vise. She was unexpectedly strong, and quite unwilling to let go. I had to literally pry her fingers off. That was my first clue that she was not ready to let go, not ready to be taken out, not READY dammit.
It reminded of someone whose world has gone completely askew, tilting out of control. They are so off kilter they think they are falling off the world. So they hold on to anything with this almost superhuman strength which belies the frailty of their physical bodies.
That was Mrs. A. It was like those dizzying rides at the county fair. Only herís wouldnít end and she couldnít get off. She was literally hanging on for dear life.
Peering closely, I looked at these remarkable hands.
Her hands held none of the decay of the rest of her body. They were bulky with their physical presence. Her fingers were exceptionally long and bony. For as strong as they were, they still held a fleshy softness. Her nails were hard and polished neatly. The palms, warm and moist, hummed with a different pulse. Her hands seem assured, vibrant and held a certain ageless confidence. These impossibly elongated, strong fingers wound around my hands in a tight wrap. I wanted to sculpt them.
As I sat next to her holding both her hands in mine I thought how her hands so fully defined a life. They were a living testament to someoneís soul. Holding Mrs. Aís hands was like peeking into someoneís life. I felt like a voyeur but I couldnít NOT look.
We stayed like that a long time. Hours really. My hands stayed wrapped around hers. We just touched and absorbed each otherís presence. Waves of emotion would wash over us. I could not do anything but hold on and grip her tightly back.>/p>
Sometimes I would try to read some of the ancient poems of yesteryear. Or I would try to sing softly. She would moan in a fretful way and I would stop. She seemed to moan not so much from pain, but some private distress I could only guess at.
Her eyes wandered from fear and terror to wonder to unseeing anything in our known world. But it was obvious to me she was looking intently at something beyond my grasp of understanding. It took me weeks to get her to relax in my presence and let her eyes show me her true feelings of relief, interest, pain, tenderness and plain old simple tiredness of living.
I felt this was my first real benediction. I left that day, three hours later, exhilarated, drained and both more alive and more questioning than ever.
My journey had just begun.