On a March morning in 2007, hospice nurses gave my father a bath. They tucked him into clean sheets in his bedroom in a little Pittsburgh neighborhood, talking to him as they did their work. When they were done, they slipped out and stood near the front door chatting with my Dad’s second wife. Within an hour, when his room was empty, quiet, still, he closed his eyes and died.
He was alone in those final moments, while his six children went about their daily lives–drinking coffee, taking showers, going to church, making their way to him in city traffic–and his wife was in the kitchen.
Dad had rarely spoken in a week. Instead he stored up strength to simply be, to dose up on the medication that helped him fight the pain that the cancer threw at him daily. Family members came and went–spending as much time with him as they possibly could. His wife lay beside him night after night–talking with him, trying to allay his fears and relay her love–but the night before he died, he remained silent.
That silence troubled me. For weeks I wondered about it. Did he want to be alone when he passed? Or did he want one of us–any of us–there with him? Was he downright petrified? Did he even, at that point, have any idea that he was about to inhale for the last time? There was just no way of knowing.
It was weeks later–after the viewing, the singing, the remembering, the crying, the laughing, the burial, the numb days and weeks that followed–that the hospice nurse who had cared for him that last day shared a story with my Aunt Trudy about her brother’s last hour. After the nurse got Dad back into bed, she told Trudy, he kept arching his neck back to get a glimpse out the window. Knowing that my father had spent his entire life as a devoted Catholic, and knowing that he likely wasn’t going to last much longer, she asked him: “Michael, do you see the angels?”
“Yes,” he whispered.
When I read the The Voice That Calls You Home–a new book by the Rev. Andrea Raynor ‘83–in order to choose an excerpt for this issue of Denison Magazine, I started thinking a great deal about hospice caregivers. (The book, and the essay we chose to run on page 38, document Raynor’s time as a hospice chaplain as well as her own battle with breast cancer.) I couldn’t help but think about the important role these caregivers play in the lives of our loved ones, and how, eventually, some of us may need their services ourselves. It’s strange to think of a relative stranger taking part in our deaths–one of the most private parts of our lives. It’s hard to imagine the vulnerability–being bathed, being groomed, being cared for, prayed for–by a man or woman who is called in when everyone knows that the end is near. And yet, it’s comforting to know that when family members can’t be there (because, let’s face it, dying is tough business, and the healthy folks in the equation sometimes need to walk away and just breathe for a moment), someone is.
Living three hours away from Dad during his sickness meant that I didn’t have daily contact with his hospice nurses. I couldn’t tell you their names. I couldn’t pick them out of a crowd. But when I think about my father in those last minutes, I find a great deal of peace knowing that there had been angels in the room.