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Sunday, January 4, 2015

When death is an occupational hazard

 photo Occupationalhazard_zpsc4ec9df2.jpg
Photo adapted from Three Crosses by Tim Green
Someone I cared about passed away on Saturday morning. Her death was unexpected; at least I wasn't expecting it.

I came to know Pat about 18 months ago when I began taking Holy Communion to her -- and others -- once a month at a nearby nursing home. I didn't see her every time I visited. When the weather was good, she would take the city bus for people with disabilities to go to Mass at our church. But in the winter, I'd get to spend some time with her. It was time I looked forward to.

Pat was blind, but she saw with faith. She used a wheelchair most of the time, but she walked a life a service, even until her death. When I would visit, she would ask me to read that day's Gospel to her. Then I would do my best to recount the message of the homily. On certain days I had to admit that my mind had wandered during the homily and I couldn't recall what the priest had said. Pat & I would talk about the Scripture and what in the passage spoke to each of us. Most of my visits with other residents at the nursing home are fairly brief, made so by the residents' limitations with communication, so these conversations with Pat were opportunities I looked forward to.

Based on how old she told me her children are, I would guess that Pat was about my mother's age. Maybe a little bit older. She was determined to really live the life she had. She had a large reading machine that she would use to read books, letters, the church bulletin. Although she was dependent on others to meet most of her physical needs, Pat still lived the call to serve.

Over the past several years, she handmade more than 1,000 cards of encouragement for members of the Indiana National Guard. In her room, she had photos of herself with some of those soldiers who had been on the receiving end of her kindness. So often people think of nursing homes as a place where old people are warehoused until they die. There was no putting Pat on a shelf.

My last visit with Pat was on Christmas day. I'd gone over to the nursing home in the early evening to visit a few people. She and I sat and talked for close to an hour that night. I learned that she had been a nurse and that she preferred working with psychiatric patients. She told me that it had been her birthday just a few days before. She mentioned that she was having some difficulty with her new reader and that she thought some brightly colored tape might help her see where to line up what it is she was trying to read. I told her I'd find some and bring it with me on my next visit. I had no idea that the Christmas visit would be my last visit.

When the phone rang last night and I saw it was a call from one of the other women in this ministry, I knew it had to be bad news. One of our ladies has been fading and has hospice care set up. I had a feeling that this was a call to let me know that she had passed away. When I heard that it was Pat who was gone, I could not believe it. She seemed so good -- finally recovering from a nasty fall, upbeat and like her old self. I halfway thought that there must have been some mix up and that she would be sitting in her chair waiting for me when I got to the nursing home this morning. I wondered whether I would tell her about the errant message and we would laugh about it or whether I would just silently give thanks that it had not been true.

That was wishful thinking. When I arrived, her name was already off the placard outside the door. I hoped I might see her daughter there, clearing out her mother's things so that I could let her know how sorry I am and how much I really liked her mom. But no one was there at the time. The bed had been stripped, the dark blue plastic cover on the mattress piled high with Pat's belongings -- many of them the holiday decorations that probably would have come down soon anyway. I put my hand on the pile and said a prayer for my friend.

Visiting a nursing home on a regular basis, it's not unusual to know people who die. Since I started, I can count six people who've gone on. Most of their deaths have made me briefly sad. Pat's death? It has left me weeping with an aching sadness.

One of the volunteers told me a while ago that I shouldn't get too close to the people I visit. I don't know how to operate like that. So I just accept this feeling of loss as an occupational hazard, because in the end, the losses are so outweighed by the faith and love I gain.

Rest in God's peace, Pat.


kimybeee said...

Oh what a blessing you were to each other!! You gave her your time and she gave you her strength. I think relationships like that are priceless. And even though you are apart for now, what a wonderful experience you would have lost if you had kept your distance!! That is a precious thing that you did for each other!