The Widow, the Owl and the Hospice Nurse
I spent many hours at the bedside with a man who had been under our care for quite some time, and who was dying… a long and tedious death. As I sat there monitoring his breathing and managing end of life symptoms, I took in everything that was happening around me. His caregiver was gently dotting holy water on his forehead and on the inside of his hands, while holding back tears and trying desperately, although not successfully, to hide the ache she was feeling at losing this man she had clearly grown quite fond of. There was something incredibly beautiful about her gentleness and while I had seen her many times a week for several months, I don’t think I ever truly saw how lovely she was. I didn’t interfere, I just smiled, and when our eyes met, she looked at me as if to ask, “is what I am doing okay?” I smiled at her, and told her it was a beautiful gesture, and not to stop.
His wife of sixty-plus years, with noted cognitive impairment, went back and forth between understanding that he was dying and asking when he would wake up. She asked if he was in a “terminal sleep”, a phrase I had never heard before, and when I asked what that meant, she said quite matter-a-factly, “it is when you sleep until you die”, which made perfect sense to me. In between the many repeated questions, and what appeared to be an almost intentional disconnect from the reality that her husband was dying, she would ask for confirmation from me that he would not be in pain, which I assured her I wouldn’t allow… and that was enough for her.
As I sat there holding his hand and gently rubbing his forehead, she reached over and touched my shoulder. I turned to look at her and I asked if she was okay. She said, “I am going to be a widow now”. I said, “yes you are… how are you feeling about that?” She took a moment to answer, and quite clearly said, “I hope he comes back as an owl”, which threw me off a bit, I have to admit. I asked her why an owl, and she proceeded to share with me that if he came back as an owl he could hide in the trees and watch over her and no one would know, but she would know. I got that. And then in the same breath she totally changed the subject and asked me how I could do the work I do, “isn’t it hard watching people die every day?” And I explained that it was hard, that this was not an easy job, but that through the work I do, I meet wonderful people and hear beautiful love stories and at the end of the day, I always have something incredible to take away from each experience. I told her I keep stories tucked away in my heart about each person I say goodbye to, and the lovely people I get to meet. She asked me what my story from today would be called. I took a minute to think about that, and then said, “The Widow, the Owl and the Hospice Nurse”. She smiled and then drifted off for a few minutes, napping in her chair. My smile lingered. I could hear the caregiver giggle a little.
When his wife woke up, she repeated several of the questions she had asked earlier, and then asked me if he was going to wake up. I told her no, that he would not be waking up. She did not seem surprised, nor sad, nor frightened… and then she said, “he is going to die soon, isn’t he?” And I said, “yes”. She looked at me, appearing to hold back tears, but none came, and said, "Will I be a widow today?" I looked at her beautiful face and I said, "Yes", holding back my own tears. He took his last breaths a few hours later.
Shortly after he died, as I sat in a chair across the room, his caregiver came over and sat in the chair next to me and took my hand. We sat there for many moments just holding hands. I whispered, “you did a beautiful job for him” and squeezed her hand. She squeezed mine back and from the corner of my eye, I could see a tear slowly falling down her cheek. She said, “thank you mam” and there was a short pause, and then she said, “I really hope he comes back as an owl”. I said, “me too”. And we continued to sit for a few more minutes holding hands.
Photo credit: My friend Paul Marto is an incredible photographer. His photos of eagles, hummingbirds, dragonflies and owls (and so much more) continually blow me away. I am very thankful he is so generous with me and allows me to use his photos. I encourage you to visit his site: martophotography.pixels.com