Birth and death are two experiences common to all human beings – and yet no one can remember either. To be present as an observer at either event is a sacred experience, and I have been privileged to view both. I wrote about the time I helped with the delivery of a baby in one of my earliest columns, “Growing Up In Prison.” Many years later, I held the hand of an elderly man as he departed this earth. These experiences are etched on my memory and I’m grateful for both of them.
I enjoy visiting shut-ins and on one hot July afternoon about twenty years ago, I dropped by the home of a fellow church member who was terminally ill. As I approached the door, it burst open and his wife came running down the walk shouting, “Help me, help me! He’s falling out of bed!”
I hurried to her side and entered the house, where the living room had been converted to a sick room. Her husband lay on the hospital bed, his legs dangling from the side and his arms flailing the air. He was mumbling incoherently and I supposed in his confusion he was trying to get up from the bed. Together we lifted his legs, positioning them on the mattress, covering them with the sheet. He continued to struggle and I held his hand firmly while talking to him in soothing tones, “It will be all right; it will be all right.”
His wife gripped his other hand and wept, resting her head on his pillow beside his tousled gray head. Finally the struggle ceased. I felt his hand go limp and noted he was no longer breathing. “He’s gone,” I whispered. His wife sobbed, her small frame shaking as she succumbed to her grief.
When the children, who all lived out of the state, had been notified, I decided I could not leave her alone. I called Harry and told him I was spending the night.
We slept little that night. She told me stories of his life growing up in an orphanage, how they met, and what a good father he had been. She was thankful that together they were active in the church and received support from the congregation and the pastoral staff during his illness. She thanked me profusely for helping her and for keeping her company until her children arrived the following day. I told her what a blessing it was to me, witnessing his transition from life and being able to assist her at this time of need. A bonding occurred between us that remained for several years; until her health failed and I was visiting her in a local nursing home.
The last time I saw her, she was incoherent and quite agitated. She had stripped away her bed covers and lay exposed. I pulled the sheet up over her body, remembering her modesty and pride in her appearance when she was well. I was bothered that she was so disquieted, groaning and uttering unintelligible words with tones of anger and a sense of fear. I wished I knew a way to calm her and give her a sense of peace.
Suddenly I remembered that she had taught the two year-olds at church for many years. Surely she often sang to them. I also knew that even when patients are not conscious their sense of hearing continues to function.
So I stood close by her bedside and sang, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Gradually her restlessness ceased, her face relaxed and her arms lay quietly by her side. She did not awaken, but I continued to sing the familiar song until she was breathing normally.
I was not present when she passed away several days later, but I had already experienced with humility the sense of holiness that exists when a soul returns to its maker.
– Mary Jo Shannon