How The Pieces Match

by Melissa Roberts Weidman

“People die the way they live,” the nurses here at my hospice often say. That sounds like we are all destined to be plagued by our bad habits (or better, rewarded by our hard-earned virtues) right up to our very last moments. Or maybe, as I prefer to think, it means that the unavoidable end of life can be as varied, unique and fascinating as any adventure possible.

Each patient I have had the privilege of knowing at our hospice house has shown me the distinct individuality of the experience. Kathleen was a terminal cancer patient who resolutely pushed her walker outside every day to sit in state on the veranda, chain smoking and drinking cups of black coffee. She took great joy in the birds fluttering at the feeder and in holding court with the various aides and nurses who shared her love of tobacco. Once a month she dressed up in her party clothes to go to the Foxwoods casino with her daughter, returning jubilantly to report her losses. She adored the fresh-baked fruit pies and chocolate cakes the hospice cook made, growing rosier and plumper with each passing month. She thrived despite her terminal illness, living for two years beyond all predictions.

Max, on the other hand, was furious at his diagnosis. His eyes blazed at each staffer as they came in to help. “What are you doing here?” he would snap. His loving wife would sit helplessly by, trying to calm him down with a pat on the arm or an embarrassed apology. Max would have none of it. He especially fumed at the presence of the chaplain. “There’s no blessing in any of this,” he parried as she offered to engage in a spiritual dialogue. “I don’t believe in God and never will. It’s a load of hogwash.” But as time went on and Max weakened, his fire damped down. He let his wife take his hand and began to ask questions of the chaplain. “What happens to me when I die? Is there life after death? Will I be able to send a sign to my wife after I’m gone?” The hard angles in his face softened. He began to accept that he didn’t have answers to the questions, but it was enough to let them be heard.

Sherry was unable to walk or talk at all. Almost completely paralyzed from a rare form of ALS in her early fifties, she had rapidly transformed from athletic sprinter and decathlon champion to wheel chair bound and mute. Yet she was exquisitely expressive in her silence. She communicated with an alphabet chart over which she could slowly pass her hand, stopping at each letter to spell out words. When I figured out a word, she would beam up at me with the most intensely beautiful smile I have ever seen. She somehow managed to communicate, with surprising tact and grace, her gratitude at having her every physical need tended to. One afternoon I thanked her for her good humor despite being stuck in this strange prison her body had become, and I acknowledged how hard it must be. Her eyes filled with tears, and she nodded with as much emphasis as she could muster. I will never forget the unshielded honesty of those eyes, the way I could hear her speak to me despite the fact she had no voice, like a deer wounded or a fox trapped.

Laureen was on oxygen, fading fast, too weak to sit up. Her son came to visit her for the first time from out of the country, bringing his South American fiancé. When they saw Laureen so weak, they knew the wedding scheduled several months hence would be too late for her participation. So the couple asked our hospice doctor if they could get married that afternoon at Laureen’s bedside. In a matter of hours, local merchants donated a wedding dress, bouquet, champagne, and two gorgeous wedding cakes. The room was transformed with a nuptial altar of candles and flowers. The bride appeared, trembling and beautiful in her white gown, and the ceremony was performed by the chaplain in his vestments. The oxygen tank whirred softly as vows were repeated in both English and Spanish. Rings were exchanged and champagne glasses lifted high. Beaming from her propped pillows, Laureen mouthed the words “Thank you” to the hospice doctor, squeezing her hand tight.

Stan was a devout Christian who continuously read his worn Bible, clutching it to his chest whenever he slept. His sister was a nun who would come to visit frequently. I sat with them one morning while they told childhood stories of falling out of trees and chasing sheep. Then they described how Stan had arrived at the hospice house just last month comatose from overmedication. “When I came here, I started to live again,” he said, smiling. With new medications, he discovered a new lease on life and so had come to savor every moment. As we sat together that morning, I felt his vision of newness permeate mine, so that every color grew brighter and every smell sweeter. We laughed and laughed over everything and nothing, and I felt the room breathe with us to encompass the term “state of grace” as much as anything I have ever experienced.

Are any of these typical? No more so than the ways in which each of us shares our common biology. We are so distinctly unique that resemblances pale before our sublime variety. Yet, like squares in an elaborate quilt, our pieces match, despite contrasting patterns. No one knows when our time is come, though we all know it is inevitable. If we are lucky enough to be in a circumstance where our needs are fully met, we might step across the threshold in a way that illuminates the blessings of transformation.

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