The Empty Chair
When I first walked into the room of a woman who was dying, I was a little taken back by how dark it was. It didn’t feel as though this was her choice, in fact it felt as though consideration was not taken for her or what she might want. She was dying alone, although she had a staff of private caregivers, who for the most part took wonderful care of her, but no one was at her bedside and her room was far too dark for someone who was dying. At least in my opinion.
When I went over to her, to let her know I was there, and to introduce myself, she didn’t move. She did not respond to my voice, or my touch when I gently took her hand. Because I always ask first, I asked if I could raise the curtains and maybe open a door or window, but she said nothing. I took the chance that her answer would be yes, so I raised each shade slowly, allowing the sun to shine into the room. I opened the French doors, just in time to hear the chorus of birds as they sang in the sunshine. And then I heard, a very whispered, “thank you”, which touched my heart deeply.
As I sat at her bedside, I noticed a large over-stuffed chair by the French doors, which I imagined hadn’t been used in quite some time, wondering about who sat there before, and whether or not she was happy they were there. I wondered how long it had been since someone sat there, or with her. As I stared at the chair, I could see the shadows of the birds as they were jumping from branch to branch on the rose trees outside on the patio. And as if it was choreographed perfectly, the reflection of the bird sitting on the branch made it appear as though it were sitting on the arm of the couch watching us… which got me thinking…
A few years ago, I walked the Camino in Spain. Along my walk I passed an old, abandoned barn that was missing a few walls, and some of the roof, but the doorway stood strong and an old chair sat in the middle of it. The chair spoke to me, much in the same way this chair did in her room, and I imagined who might have sat there and what they might have seen… and how long it had been since someone sat there… and why. I always want to know why.
This got me thinking about the empty chairs we see at tables after someone dies, the ones which are specifically designated for that special person who sat there at every meal. I didn’t have that in my family, and to be honest there were very few family meals at the table, but I like to fantasize about what that might have been like. And after someone dies, I can feel the ache when I hear someone say, “don’t sit there, that was daddy’s chair.”
I met a woman once who shared with me that after her husband of 62 years had died, she continued to set the table for her and for him. I was sitting at the table when she told me this, and as she pointed to the empty chair, she said, “That is Jack’s chair.” I can’t help but imagine how hard it is for someone who was already struggling with the loss they experienced, but now has to look across the table at the empty chair, day after day. Or what it must feel like to welcome people into your home, watching as they sit on the recliner chair, wondering if they cringe for just a second, wanting so badly to ask them not to sit there, because “that was Papa’s chair.”
As I continued to sit with this woman who was dying, with the sun shining through her bedroom window, and with the sounds of birds chattering away outside, I looked at that chair and I smiled thinking to myself that whoever used to sit in that chair, was there now, making sure that she was not dying alone. So now, when I see an empty chair, and I know why it is empty, I will know in my heart that just because you can’t see someone there, the chair is never really empty… and this comforts me.