Open Book
Light Bulb

what it looks like to rule and reign with Christ

I went to an all girls Catholic high school. As part of our graduation requirements, we had to participate in a service project from a list of places in our city. Dozens of girls selected the animal shelter and daycares. My eyes fell to the bottom of the list, with zero volunteers—our local Hospice.

Even at 17, I wasn’t deterred by death. I’d already lost my youngest brother. If anyone in my class had some skills to serve the dying, it was probably me. To my surprise, one other classmate signed up. Her name was Katy; we became known at school as “The Katies of Death.”

Condensed from “Life Lessons from the Death Bed” by Katie Zakrzewski, Insomnia Quarterly
Our first day at Hospice, Katy and I filled out paperwork and received our volunteer badges. At the front desk we were given the patient roster from a grandmotherly nurse. Each sheet had a patient’s name, including conditions, notes or requests, and whether family was present.

One patient seemed immensely troubled. Her notes column included “!!!ALWAYS RESUSCITATE!!!” We were hesitant to visit.

I asked the grandmotherly nurse about the patient. She sighed, “Some folks come here, they’re in denial. She’s been resuscitated several times—did more harm than good.” The nurse explained this patient had confided that she was very wealthy, but her wealth bred only greed in her family. “She’d probably like your company.”

I entered the dimmed room uncertainly, and suddenly felt fear. It was a difficult sight. The woman was in her 80s with late stage mouth and throat cancer, her face from the nose down covered and bandaged. Her sunken eyes regarded me miserably, watching me with the fear of a wounded animal.

Gently I sat beside her bed. Gazing at the elaborate rings on her frail fingers, I was struggling to say something. “I like your rings. They’re pretty.”

She managed a raspy, “Thank you.”

“Are you scared?” I whispered.

She nodded.

I replied. “You’re not alone.”

I intended to communicate that I was physically there for her. But I think my words meant a lot more. I was scared too. My present and high school were scary. My future and trying to figure out where to go to college (and how to pay for it) was scary. Recalling the faces of dying loved ones transposed onto the faces of Hospice patients was scary.

I didn’t realize tears were dripping down my face until a frail, boney hand appeared in my line of sight, offering a crumpled tissue. I took it, softly apologizing. We sat in silence together, feeling one another’s contemplative presence. In saying very little, all that was needed had been said. With a trembling hand, she took the pen from my volunteer clipboard. Next to her name on the patient sheet, she wrote in shaky letters:

“DNR.” Do not resuscitate. The next day her room was empty, the bed made with fresh linens, open blinds letting in the afternoon sunlight.

On one of our last days visiting Hospice, Katy and I were puzzled to find a large gathering outside one of the patient rooms. A large group of disheveled individuals were nearly blocking the hallway; homeless people attending an elderly man in his hospital bed. He breathed with the raspy death rattle common among those with just hours to live.

“He’s a homeless man,” the nurse explained. “He’s helped a lot of the other local homeless folks. They were outside the hospital everyday asking where he was. Since they learned he was here, he’s had dozens of visitors.”

Those visitors fluffed his pillow, held his hands and cleaned his face. Some sang hymns softly. Sometimes, the people who have everything in life have nothing in death. But sometimes the people who have nothing in life have everything that they could ever want in their final hours.

So many patients and families shared with me their deepest desires, their darkest fears, and their sorest regrets that semester. From them I learned to take vacations and travel to strange places. I never go to bed angry. I always say, “I love you,” to family and friends before hanging up the phone, just in case it’s the last time we talk. I choose my words wisely with both friend and foe.

There have been times that I’ve done less than my best work in order to spend more time with family. Because I saw first hand that on their deathbeds people remember their parents and siblings and spouses and children and pets—not their career accomplishments.

I’ve learned it is so important not to get lost in the weeds of everyday life. If today sucked, oh well. There’s always tomorrow. And at least on our bad days, we still have people around us who love us, who help us, who want the best for us. I’ve learned to savor each moment and be thankful, because things can quickly change.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that when I leave this earth for a better home someday, the only thing I’ll take with me is what I gave away. ~

Dan Nygaard