(Trigger warning: death, medical descriptions)
Today I watched the nurses prepare a woman’s dead body for her daughter to come in the room to see her for the first time. The daughter had arrived just after her mom had died, after a protracted illness in her late 80s/early 90s. While the daughter called her Rabbi and her sister (in that order, I believe, because there was some family tension) in the hallway, I stood just beyond the foot of the bed, right inside the curtains, to watch. The woman was not 10-15 minutes gone at this time, no rigidity had set in; when I touched her later, you could still feel some residual warmth.
The CNAs rushed, carefully, to get the woman ready, which mainly involves removing all the unsightly signs of death. Bodies drain, a lot, when death happens, out of more than one orifice—and every time they moved her body, there was more drainage. I think they had to change the sheets and her gown twice; she was on the small side but very clearly dead weight—they used a sheet under her to roll her from side to side. Lots of linens piled up. They put her in a new set of diapers, just in case. Once she was positioned, they wiped her face and arms really well, removing all the schmutz that seems to gather on ill people. The nurse wiped eyelashes and lips and front teeth and inside her nose and between all of her fingers and in the folds of her neck. They added cleanser to her hair to comb it. And used lots and lots of deodorizer, apricot-scented. They covered her back up in blankets, tucked a pink carnation in her hands, and then tidied up the room. All the medical supplies from her hospice stay were removed and her bedside table was put in order. She was ready.
Her daughter’s first comment was “Dead looks . . . dead. She really looks dead.” There is no way around that. She kissed her mom and stroked her face, noticing that the warmth was beginning to leave. She was sad but relieved. No prayers now as she went in search of her arriving husband. So much to organize for the funeral service and luncheon and shiva arrangments and apparently that sister to fight with.
After that, I went to meet and visit with the homecare woman about whom I’ve written before and in my last reflection. She has become more lethargic and confused, owing to the meds used to treat her high levels of anxiety and increased number of panic attacks. But she was glad to see me. She can barely talk and fiddles with her oxygen (her levels dropped into the low 70s while I was there because she takes the mask and the tube off to cough and eject mucus.) And so I massaged her hands with nice lotion and paraphrased a blessing I learned as a hospice volunteer years ago.
Blessed be the hands that have touched life.Blessed be the hands that have nurtured creativity.Blessed be the hands that have held pain.Blessed be the hands that have embraced with passion.Blessed be the hands that have closed in anger.Blessed be the hands that have planted new seeds.Blessed be the hands that have harvested ripe fields.Blessed be the hands that have cleaned, washed, and scrubbed.Blessed be the hands that have become wrinkled with years.Blessed be the hands that are scarred from doing justice.Blessed be the hands that have reached out and been received.Blessed be the hands that feed those who are hungry.Blessed be the hands that comfort the dying and touch the dead.Blessed be the hands that greet strangers.Blessed be the hands that guide the young.Blessed be these hands.
We didn’t talk about death and dying, faith or the afterlife, she craved presence. But I know what I would have said; I would have told a story, drawing on Kate Braestrup’s story in Marriage and Other Acts of Charity (as well as her idea that logos can be translated both as “word” and “story.”) A religion professor (a student of Paul Tillich) used to ask his class to name what a woman looking out his window at the lake would most likely see. They predictably answered “people, boats, water, birds, trees, etc.” No one would mention the window, the glass right in front of the woman’s face, though even the cleanest window is a tiny bit visible as you look out it. The religion professor noted that Jesus Christ was the window through which people look at God and that, continuously through the New Testament, Jesus points away from himself to God. In that way, not just Jesus but all prophetic men and women point us towards the sacred; religion helps us understand our world and our place in it. I would have reassured her that it didn’t matter which window she looked out of, as long as she took in the view. But I didn’t want to tire her with talk, especially as her afternoon meds kicked in. Her partner of 25 years ever so gently administer her meds and fluids through her feeding tube, carefully gauging the measurements and checking for leakage. I hadn’t seen a feeding tube in action. I felt my day come full circle--death and dying, illness, fluids, leakage, love, and care. And I meditated, "grant peace to those who suffer and strength to those who help."