We Can Do That Later
By JIM NICHOLS
It is reasonable that few of us live with much sense of urgency. Occasionally, we find ourselves having to make specific plans and implement them with care, but, generally, what we have as tasks today can wait until tomorrow. Even with important tasks it is our tendency to delay them or build them into some plan. This is a common and understandable pattern we have, but for those nearing the end of physical life, tasks sort themselves more clearly and some rise to the top quickly.
The physical death of each of us may come quickly or be prolonged. I suspect each of us could identify the pluses and minuses of each. The timing of human death has changed significantly over the years. Only a century ago, a childhood ear infection or widespread bacterial disease could be quickly fatal. The discovery of vaccines and antibiotics, along with the whole world of medical treatments and surgical procedures, has dramatically lengthened the time between the onset of a physical problem and individual death. “Quick” deaths have become less frequent; “prolonged” deaths more common. This has set the stage for “anticipatory grief” for both patients and those watching.
Hospice patients have fewer illusions about life, at least in general. Granted, some appear to be losing their mental capacities, but I wonder if that is just our interpretation; we are comparing them to ourselves. We do not want to be in that condition, so we assume that they do not want to be there either.
When we are in the presence of someone closing in on the end of this human life, we have some important windows opened to us if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. One patient had a photo on the wall of a wood-cutting facility in a northeast state covered with trees. It was the family business and at every visit she pointed out her husband and the various parts of the operation. Here is where he sharpened his tools; there is where we had a great Halloween party every year. The children got new bikes and sleds and stored them in that shed until the proper season.
On his bed a man spoke of the great care his brother and his wife were giving him. Although they lived on the edge of modern civilization, they had good food, appropriate warmth and cool, and the television worked. His son had come to visit during these last days and they had said words of forgiveness, words that they had never before been able to murmur; his peace with that was nearly palpable. Was he in pain? He said, yes, but he was used to it. He spoke as a person of faith and acted as if this specific time in life was, although not welcomed, at least acceptable and reasonable. This was not a time for a visitor to try to help; it was a time to watch, listen, and be quiet.
Frequently, the urgency of forgiveness increases toward the end of life. Illness and approaching death strips away lots of junk, frankly, and we have opportunities to go places in relationships that have needed visiting for a long time. Finally, the time has come. We should have gone there before, but it just did not seem to be the right time. Now it was.
This series of negotiations of forgiveness between family members is a common event and is rewarding for an outsider to observe. Many past angry words and actions appear less significant in the last days and weeks of life. Even though most of us are not there right now, we would do well to consider those days in advance.
For the patient, there are some things that need to be completed; apparently, God is not finished there yet. This is a time that needs to be used right now; it might never come again. As an observer, this is an opportunity to be quiet and present. There are some fundamental loose ends being tied, and we have been welcomed to watch that happen. Grace is appearing before us; let us pay attention to it.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain