My long, dark hair was secured in a neat twist, not to distract me from my duties. My hair has always signified the intensity of my focus, which could be razor sharp at times. This a fact that enabled me to perform well in stressful situations, composed and assured.
This focus, although it can be deemed undesirable to some, was of notable relevance this particular afternoon as I cared for my patient in her final hours. She suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and was in the final stages of its grasp. She struggled to catch her breath, her eyes wide and scared. I did my best to make her comfortable, methodically positioning her as her gaze met mine. My eager and compassionate presence, I can only hope she sensed. Even as an inexperienced nurse, I possessed this ability whether I appreciated its significance or not.
It would not be her final moments that I recall with the most detail, but the moments after her spirit left that causes me to pause now.
I discovered her still before the end of my shift. There was no energy or activity, other than my attempts to comfort her earlier, involved in her passing. It was peaceful I imagined as she parted her lips once last time, her breath escaping as did her spirit without unnecessary effort or pain. It was her time, I accepted that with reverence.
As an even younger nursing assistant, I had been trained in preparing and transferring the deceased. However, on this day, I knew her sisters would be coming to see her before she left our floor. I had an expanding appreciation for the significance of these moments, the final farewell. I also recognized that it was I, alone, that held this responsibility of preparing her for her sisters.
There were large windows in her private room and the sun slanted in through the partially closed blinds. I reached for the cords and pulled them completely open, the light radiating on her bed. I cleaned her and dressed her in her favorite sweater. Adjusting her bed upright, I ensured her blankets were tidy, folding the top neatly under her arms. Her hands; I focused on those in particular. I applied lotion and folded them together in prayer. Searching in her bedside table, gently lifting her rosary beads with conviction and weaving them strategically through her cool fingers…I was satisfied.
Her hair styled; I sprinkled baby powder under her neck and shoulders in an effort to mask the odor that my nose recognized as common in these final moments. My focus completely on the lasting impression this visit would have on her loved ones.
By her bed, I placed her bible and a box of opened tissues. It is noteworthy, that in all the possessions she must have possessed in her life only her bible, rosary, and a few articles of clothing remained with her. This, I would recognize time and time again. All else, passing fancies. Nothing more, nothing less.
As I turned to leave her room, I partially slid the privacy curtain closed. Holding on to the edge of the curtain, I glanced back at my surroundings. The sun, gratefully, had not yet set. A steady stream of light reflected off the floor, her bed within range of its rays. She appeared peaceful, poised even, holding her rosary beads.
At the nurse’s station, her sisters waited arm and arm. They leaned onto each other, steadying one another physically and emotionally in their combined sorrow. “She is ready for you now,” I spoke as I touched their intertwined arms. As they walked away, every fiber of my being knew this to be so. She was ready.
Although I spent the majority of my nursing career welcoming new life, it was in moments similar to these that I truly could appreciate what it meant to live life.