I’ll Fly Away

By JIM NICHOLS

The monitor lights blinked with lines and numbers. The patient lay unmoving in the bed while family members quietly entered and exited the hospital room; they spoke softly and seldom.

It seems to me that those employed in medical settings have a distinct human advantage over others. This is particularly true in our modern world. Whereas, in the past life and death were often closely aligned, today many go about life for many, many years with seemingly no admission that life is temporary. One of my favorite Billy Graham quotations is “The biggest surprise in life is its brevity.” For many of those working in healthcare situations today, however, the separation between life and death is much narrower.

This more compressed space allows an important realization to be present for such workers. Their job is to treat, comfort, and guide ill and dying patients, but in the process, it has been my observation that they develop a healthier view of the “brevity of life.” I have had such experiences myself and a number have been reported to me. Often, these have a mystical aspect to them that, for those of us God believers, touches an important part of us. A chaplain friend of mine reported this encounter which I summarize.

The patient was a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother at the end of her journey. The chaplain said he had visited several times including earlier that day. During this visit, multiple family members had assembled to share what they expected to be her last moments. They had come to remind her of their love for her and “let her know that it would be OK for her to go be with the Lord.” One of them had told the chaplain, “Even though they had come all this way with her, the patient was the one who was going to have the last word.”

There are two particularly common circumstances during these “last hours” events. The distressing one is when family members are in clear conflict. Standing around the bed, there are harsh and angry words spoken. Selfishness replaces grief and acceptance.

This was an occasion of the other type in which family members seem to agree. The patient, however, continues to live and, frankly, seems reluctant to depart.

The chaplain said he encountered the daughter getting coffee at the nurses’ station and got an update. The daughter said, “She quit breathing a while ago for a moment but her heart did not stop. She is like that little energizer bunny who is not giving up. I am ready for her to go when God calls out for her. I have told her that I love her and that she need not hang on for any of us, but momma is going to go when she is ready.”

They returned to the room and the monitors showed a slow heartbeat and erratic and shallow breathing. 

“She just will not let go.”

“Is there any reason that she may be hanging on?”

“Momma loved the Lord, but she feared dying. I have sat here with her and told her that it would all be okay and that there was nothing to fear, but she just hangs on and will not let go.”

My chaplain friend said the family gathered again around the bed and he sensed the presence of unseen angels and saints. He said he closed his eyes and prayed silently: “Heavenly Father, I am here with your daughter and those who love her. Fill our sister with the grace to be open to hear you call for her if it is your will. Mrs. M, the angels and saints are gathered here before us. Walk with them boldly forward when God calls out your name. Do not be afraid. Go towards the light that beckons you. It is the way and the truth of Christ. Go forth my dear sister and receive what God has prepared for you.”

He said when he opened his eyes, they all looked at the monitors. The heartbeat that had been nearly undetectable began to beat strongly at a rate of 62. Over the course of a minute, it moved to 68, then 74, 80, 86, 92 and then to zero.

The daughter said, “She’s gone.”

My friend said it was a beautiful moment but difficult to understand in any way except a spiritual one.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain

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