For the past week, several times during the night, a tap on my foot would wake me. “We need you.” I would run down the stairs to my dear patient. Respiratory distress, blood pressure sky rocketing, panic. I would put oxygen and rub his back so his wife, Dolly, could rest for a few minutes.
He is tired. Day four without sleep. The end is near. She wipes her tears quickly and I motion for her to lay down. She is as exhausted as he is. I sit beside him and rub his back, in gentle rhythm to his gasps for air. He is fighting panic. I sing softly and rub.
His children are spread out on the floor. One is feigning sleep. One is watching a fly on the wall. One is in the kitchen with the toddlers. On is reading her book, and the youngest is watching his dad.
Vicente, just 42 years old, was already in the last stages of polycystic kidney disease when they came to me almost 3 months ago. No money, nowhere to live, and no idea what to do. Specialist upon specialist all said the same thing. Terminal. Nothing could be done. Only a few weeks left.
I don’t know why I always have to explain these things to people. I remember the family meeting and how brave they all were. Even then, he was determined to live longer than a few weeks. “I asked God for a little extra time,” he said to me with a smile.
Day seven. We have bathed him. We have rubbed him till our arms are heavy. His children come in and out. My own children come in and out. He is being difficult. Sometimes screaming, sometimes crying, sometimes making no sense at all.
Last night, his brother came and rubbed him through the night with a gentleness and love I have seldom seen.
I move him this way and that way. He isn’t comfortable. I move him again. Rearrange the pillows. Rub his feet, his hands. Pat him like a baby. Wipe his face. Sit me up. Lay me down. He is demanding, desperate for comfort. We have moved his bed outside, where the wind is fresh and he can see the sky. It is full of beautiful white fluffy clouds. He keeps his eyes tightly closed.
Hours later, we are exhausted. I look up. The sky is so bright and blue. The clouds have hurried away. I think the angels are gathering.
And he fights some more. “I’m going ahead of you, ma. I’m going ahead,” he yells. But he can’t seem to let go. Dolly is so brave. She rubs his head. “It’s okay. We’ll see each other again. Go. Go. Hurry. Go.”
And he is quiet for a few minutes.
She begins to sing one of his favorite worship songs. And her children join, tears falling. Suddenly, his arms are raised and he yells, “Praise the LORD!”
And He is gone. His imperfect, broken and borrowed body, is left cold and hard.
I let Dolly cry on my shoulder. I gather Vicente’s children in my arms and hold them tight; reminding them of the goodness of their Heavenly Father and the plans He most certainly has for them. Hours later, I leave them with their grief.
Ah, grief. How well I know his face.
I take a deep breath. I am aware of each beat of my own heart. I too, am housed in this shell we call our human body. Someday I too, will soar with the angels, and be free from the suffering, pain, and burdens of this life on earth.
The sky is dark. I didn’t see night come. My heart aches for this family. I am weary. And suddenly I am aware of arms stronger than mine, and bigger than mine, wrapped around me. I know I am not alone.