Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What It Comes Down To: With the Dying

I spent some time this afternoon sitting with a 103-year-old woman who is dying.  Which is to say that I spent some time praying, some time remembering, and some time observing.

I don't know this woman at all.  I've often visited with her son, one of my parishoners, who is recovering from a massive stroke, and his wife and their two daughters, and I have listened to humorous stories about "Grandma" and her efforts to conceal some of her misadventures in her apartment, falls and injuries that would have cost her her independence had the wrong people gotten wind of them.  I met her when she was moved into hospice care some weeks ago.  At that time, even from her prone position in bed, she was still a boisterous, no-nonsense kind of gal.  I kind of wondered whether she had ever been a rodeo rider.

Today she is unconscious, heavily medicated, and breathing laboriously.  I had ample opportunity to take in her surroundings and ponder the results of 103 years of living:

Half of a double room, a curtain pulled carelessly between the two sides as a pointless divider;

A twin bed, a couple of machines that apparently do something, a bedside table, a lamp inexplicably turned on;

A sippy cup with a straw, no doubt unused for several days;

Tousled gray hair strew across the pillow, thick and curly;  paper-thin eyelids closed in the sunken sockets of an angular face.  She must have been a beautiful woman.

There is no art.  There is no music.  There are no photographs.  There are no books.

I have told my children many times that should I approach this condition, their task to to get me to the beach.  I would like to die within the sight and sound of the ocean and the seabirds.

I see now that I need to mention a few other things.  If I should land in similarly spartan surroundings, they are expected to show up with some artwork, whatever future i-invention produces the best music, and a stack of books.  If I can't die with my feet in the sand, perhaps I could at least be surrounded by remnants of my life.

And if I am unaware of all of it, if I am already elsewhere despite my body's resistance to its departure, I would like for the sounds to be other than my own ragged breaths.  The second movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 would be my preference, followed by the Largo from Dvorak's New World Symphony.

Those pieces constitute the soundtrack that I am sliding into the images with which I am left this afternoon.


  1. Brings back memories of sitting with my mother in December. Made me think - should have had music. Why didn't I? hmmmm..... Your description of her room could have been my mother's also...

  2. I love the Largo. I remember reading (or maybe it was being read to me, I was little) The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. When the father is dying, the family is singing to him. I loved that. I hope I'll hear music.

  3. I, too, would love to be at the beach, if I'm ever in hospice care, preferably a quiet one in Hawaii, or on Vancouver Island...and I'd love to have my husband, son and a purring cat beside me. That would be in a perfect world! I've thought about going to look for work in hospice in Hawaii...
    God bless this family, and you, as you minister to them.

  4. Robin, what a post... the music, the music. And to die within the sounds of the waves.

  5. Amen, sister. Amen.

  6. My favorite is Mozart's Bassoon Concerto. After listening to your choice, I had to go back to my blog and listen to mine. If you are interested, it's here:

    I've given my children written insructions, but I need to add music to the list. Thank you for making us think -- and for the music.

    1. What a wonderful piece of music! I love the bassoon, and this would be a great piece to which to listen on the last day of one's life.

    2. A new one to me. Thank you, Bonnie!

    3. Robin and Mary Beth, I'm glad you enjoyed listeening to it.

  7. Thank you. Ministry to the dying is a special gift.

  8. Thank you Robin.
    This brought to mind a friend who was dying and her niece.
    Her niece beautified the room and also made sure her hair and makeup were taken care of.
    My friend always wore makeup and her niece was sensitive to her aunt's needs.
    This young woman eased the journey for her.

  9. I read this as I rushed out the door the other day and have been thinking about this lady ever since. I wish that palliative wards in hospitals were not so clinical and that everyone had options for a warm and peaceful death. A big ask I know. I love your words
    "And if I am unaware of all of it, if I am already elsewhere despite my body's resistance to its departure". Bless you both.