Last week, I accompanied my pastor in taking communion to two ladies who can no longer make it to church on Sundays. One of them is residing at a hospice facility, as she is reaching the final chapter of her life on earth. The other is living in a nursing home, for she struggles with dementia and old age challenges in general. The prospect of offering communion to them felt inviting and daunting all at the same time. For those of us who participate in this particular sacrament, the ritual is comforting; a reminder that we live in the love, forgiveness and support of Jesus Christ. For those who do not recognize the holiness of the ritual, it must seem somewhat bizarre. A bite and a sip, along with prayer and contemplation. The entire process can take just a couple of minutes when only three people are partaking. No matter what your perspective is on the sacredness of it all, it is hard to deny that those who ally with it do so with devotion and gratitude.
This was not my first visit to our local hospice house. I had been there before to visit friends who were preparing for the ends their lives. The facility is quiet and well appointed. It is peaceful and has many characteristics of a private home, but is isn’t a private home. It is where people go to gently die. We walked through the door, signed in, and proceeded to ______’s room. She was sitting up in her bed, looking fresh as a daisy, as classical music played on her radio. Her room was a hybrid of a guest room and a hospital room, generic, yet cozy. A few of her personal belongings were scattered around the room. She had a stack of books on the table next to her bed. To a person not familiar with her situation, she could have been mistaken for a retired person having a delightfully lazy day. Our visit was filled with pleasant dialogue about friends, family, books, history and culture. She happily admitted that she felt well, and was experiencing no pain at all.
“I feel just fine! And let me tell you, this place is wonderful. The Episcopalians bring lovely meals to us once a week. And look here! I have my own refrigerator, so I can keep whatever I want in there. And the staff here is lovely. It really is so nice.”
I was somewhat taken back by her lightheartedness, but not completely surprised. You see, this is a woman who exudes grace. She always has, and preparing for death was not about to rob her of that.
After about an hour, we left the hospice house and drove to the nursing home to visit ______. She was not in her room, which was a touch alarming. We perused the halls and public spaces, and there she was in the social area, sitting in her wheel chair, chattering with a volunteer. When she saw us, her face lit up.
“Oh, look! It’s my pastor and his wife!” She got half of it right, anyway. “Oh, I am so glad you are here! Come with me. I want to show you something.”
She led us down a hall towards the bulletin board which outlined activities and menus for the month. Along the way, we passed others. They were all in wheel chairs. Some were asleep, some were awake and drooling, some were muttering, some were…just sitting. We found the board. Bingo…movie night…peach cobbler…Girl Scouts…Salisbury Steak…Bible Study…….You get the picture. The place was clean but still had that faint, yet common aroma. Eau de Nursing Home. A marriage of chicken soup, corn bread, urine and Pine Sol.
____________ beamed with pride. “I am so grateful. This place is very nice. Isn’t this place just lovely? It is so nice, really. After I broke my ankle and had to come here, I decided to stay. It really is very nice.” She smiled from ear to ear. “ I have my own little bathroom, but the room for baths is down the hall. They help you. It is all so nice.”
I was astounded because I would not have categorized this place as lovely and I sure as hell would not have elected to live there. Still, _________ found the establishment to be just shy of thrilling. The Ritz Carleton. I couldn’t blame this perception entirely on her mental state because I have known plenty of people struggling with dementia. Dementia doesn’t necessarily make a person delightful and grateful. This woman was those things and much more. She was positively glowing…because she loved her nursing home.
We finally made it back to her room and shared a communion meal. ____________ repeated her stories of gratitude over and over. Never once did she complain or drop her grin. In this place, filled with a herd of others in the same state or worse, she was uncommonly happy.
I have thought about these two women for days. They are both living in circumstances that could easily be described as sad, depressing, hopeless or dire. Still, each of these women overflows with joy. Gratitude oozes from them. Delight is in every breath. How can that be?
A friend of mine, a hospice chaplain in California, is writing a book about her experiences with people who are dying. She has consistently witnessed that, regardless of faith background or belief system, people who have lived their lives gracefully through kindness to others, generosity and forgiveness die just as gracefully. Her observations are that at the actual moment of death, those people have less physical pain than those who have alienated friends and family, and have lived miserly, selfish lives. Interesting. My prediction is that, when the time comes, death will gently embrace the ladies I visited. I would bet the ranch on it, and I know one other thing for sure. When my day arrives, I hope that I can share with others the same grace that they shared with me last week. If I can do that, then I will have done well. That’s what I think, anyway. I do.