I first posted this in November of 2012. I consider it one of my Thanksgiving posts.
This event was a life-changing event for me.
It was 1961.
I was 18, a Student Nurse.
I still remember the first time I saw Mary. She was sitting in her chilly white hospital gown in a metal-painted-white bed with white sheets, in a mostly white room with 5 other similar beds in a busy metropolitan hospital.
Six-bed wards were not the norm, but every nursing division had at least one such large ward to accommodate the poorest of the poor......... or even the overflow of better endowed patients.
There was nothing warm about the room. Medical research had not yet "discovered" the plain-as-day truth that we are strengthened by soft colors, plants, carpet that doesn't echo the nurses' hurried clip-clops, and nurses dressed in colorful arrays instead of being all done up in starched white.
The one rectangular window was placed high on the wall, horizonal to the ceiling.
It was a chilly starched white atmosphere that Mary inhabited.
Mary was young. Which is odd to say since I was only 18 and anybody middle aged should have appeared old. Maybe it was her "teenage" thinness. Having battled cancer to the last terrible stage, she had basically quit eating. Maybe it was the way she looked at me in desperation. Maybe it was the lack of wrinkles, her skin having lost enough of the under-structures to be pulled taut over the bones.
Maybe it was all her "unfinished business" that created a look of youth.
Maybe it was I couldn't notice she was 40 for being focused on all the things that were wrong with the scene.
Many many of us, as we die, will be surrounded by loved ones who care.
But many of us will not.
Some people die in war, surrounded by enemies.
Some people die ignominiously publicly, without loving support (perhaps even hated) ,
surrounded by reporters and media hounds there to chronicle the execution.Some people die alone in the desert trying to make it to a better land.
Some people die hiking alone.........or on the high seas alone..or in accidents.
Most people in earlier times died at home. Some still do.
But for many of us, we will die in a hospital
hopefully surrounded by loving kind family or friends.
Mary was almost alone.
Nobody came to visit her.
An illusive husband, grown children, a teenager, a sprinkling of very young grandchildren and yet there were no visits, cards, flowers, phone calls.
She had only nurses.... mostly one student nurse, me.
Mary was assigned to me "for the duration", a person to "learn upon".
It was my first real close-up with death. My little cousin Janie didn't count since I was not there when she died of an accidental fall from a shopping cart. Since I had to baby sit my younger siblings...I was 12.... during Janie's funeral, I did not attend the services for Janie.
I last saw Janie alive and well...and then she disappeared.
Lots of living people go away and never come back, so, for me, Janie was like one of those.
Mary's death from cancer was going to be nothing like Janie's death.
Mary was my patient "for the duration" and I was staring at death.
Cancer deaths are not quick, as a rule.
Today, for many cancer patients, cancer is a chronic disease, not even acute, and life goes on for years.
But even back then, Mary was not going to die quickly.
Mary lived long enough for me to become very familiar with the window high up horizonal to the ceiling as I struggled to "be there" for Mary and I often focused on that window, praying silently, groping in my mind for some comfort I could give.
One day Mary asked me point blank, "Am I going to die?"
I stood mute like an incompetent, unable to utter a word.
It would be several years before I learned that one doesn't answer that question, but instead uses it to open the conversation to the patient's thoughts, concerns, even fears about his or her impending death.
It takes practice to open up those conversations because we are mortal and have an emotional need to close down those conversations for our own comfort,
because the honest answer is "Yes, you are going to die.....and so am I !! Oh, my god, I am going to die !!!"
It takes practice to open further the window to another person's soul.
I failed Mary.
Mary's bed was so situated in the ward that she was plainly visible from the door.
She and I became close as I spent more time than necessary at her bedside..... or chairside since she was still ambulatory with help.
Those were the days when I had no idea many people are conscious right up until death calls them!
One day Mary had a visitor! It was an event of such magnitude that I "hung around". A young man came to visit.
I can see him today as plainly as I saw him that day. His eyes glossy with tears, his hair too long and stringy, his clothes pitiful, his feet big (or his shoes big).
His jacket hung limply and he seemed as incompetent about what to do as I was.
Mary was asleep from the pain medication.
I stooped beside this noble young man and whispered, "You can hold her hand", and he immediately held her hand.
It was time to go to class, so I had to leave, but I visited Mary at dinner time that evening and we talked a bit.
The last time I saw Mary was that night. She appeared in my dormitory bedroom as I awakened from sleep.
The room was filled with the greatest sweetness I have ever experienced.
"I just came by to say good-bye and to thank you. And to tell you I love you."
I smiled and she was gone. I looked at my clock. 11:45
I settled back into bed and went back to sleep without ado.
Though I had just experienced the strangest most unusual event of my life, nothing seemed strange, nothing seemed odd, nothing seemed out of place.
No question came to my mind as to how Mary entered my room, or left my room.
Next morning before breakfast, I went in as usual (a habit) to see Mary before I started my busy student day.
I stopped in her doorway. Her bed was empty. Her bed was freshly made, hospital neat without a wrinkle.
Running out to the Nurses' Station, I asked the night Charge Nurse where Mary was, even though I knew.
"She died last night."
"Her chart is over there. It hasn't gone down to Medical Records yet."
Finding Mary's chart, I flipped through it.
You know, don't you, what time she died. 11:45
I stood there at the desk, silent and puzzled at the enormity of life.
I have never forgotten Mary.
This early nursing experience expanded my vision for every situation I have since encountered in life. Indeed, it was a life-changing experience for me.
I do not know why or how this visitation happened.
I do not know why such kind of an event has never happened again for me.
But I do know our personal identity does not end at death.
That much I was given the privilege of knowing.
And now, being old, I have lived long enough to learn that , of course I am going to die! But not today.
Grateful to God and giving thanks,
Grateful to you for visiting my blog.