I grabbed my phone and checked my Tinder profile. As a single 39-year-old lawyer, I’d scheduled a date, two days before Christmas, instead of traveling from my Manhattan apartment to Missouri to see family. There was just too much familial tension after my mother’s death as we all navigated our grief.
Tapping on the app, there was a message confirming my date. I checked my emails, and found a request from Audrey, my hospice volunteer manager. On Sundays for a year, I’d been visiting patients with a life expectancy of less than six months. Sometimes, I read to them. Often, we simply chatted. Recently, I’d trained to be a vigil volunteer, learning how to serve patients expected to die within 48 hours.
Audrey said a patient near my apartment was “imminently dying.” He was 91.
“Alone and dying at Christmastime,” I whispered. I couldn’t help but think of myself.
Two years earlier, as our family unwrapped presents, I held Mom’s hand, her hair clumps under her cap, her body swollen from cancer. My father, sisters, brothers, in-laws, nieces and nephews had gathered, spending extra time with Mom, who died weeks later. Her hospice team had provided needed support.
I canceled my date and signed up for a two-hour shift. After work, I dashed to a yoga class before cabbing to my apartment for my hospice ID.
My emotions ricocheted as I walked to the nursing home. I was grateful I could serve someone in need, especially at the holidays. But was I ready? I mentally reviewed my lessons about compassionate touch and mindful presence, remembering my manager’s guidance on creating a calm, serene space.
As I searched for my patient’s room, paramedics carrying a stretcher passed me. Was I too late? I knocked on the door frame of my patient’s room. No one answered. I entered the two-person room.
“Hi. Are you Matthew?” I asked the man near the door.
“Hi. Hi. Hi,” he replied and tried to rise out of bed. His eyes bulged. His clavicle bone protruded.
“I’m Tess. I’m a volunteer. Would you like me to sit with you?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes.” His legs began moving as if he was attempting to climb out of bed. His sheet was crumbled at the bottom, exposing his reedy legs.
I’d expected Matthew to be sedate or unconscious, like Mom had been for three full days before she died.
Across the room, a cardboard box sat in the closet that was cracked open. Matthew’s name was spelled in pen on a piece of loose-leaf paper taped on the door. Pepto-Bismol pink tiles covered the walls. A foul smell hung in the air. I felt awful for Matthew. What a place to die.
Matthew’s roommate began coughing, sneezing and yelling for the nurse to change his radio station.
The nurse appeared and asked me to step into the hall.
I waited, taking long deep breaths, like in yoga class.
“You can come in now,” the nurse said.
Matthew wore a fresh gown and was tucked neatly into bed. A black rosary hung from the rail.
“Is this your rosary?” I asked Matthew.
“Pray please. Pray please.” He reached his hand into the air.
From my tote, I pulled out my garnet-colored beads, the ones my mother had held as she died. I opened the prayer book she used to carry in her purse. “In the name of the Father,” I began.
Matthew grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Remember me,” he said.
A jab of pain tightened my chest. I stared at him, wondering what had happened in his life that left a stranger like me providing support during his final hours. I wondered about his life, his family, his sister. She’d been the one who’d made the request for a hospice vigil because she couldn’t be with her dying brother. I wondered what had kept her from being the one holding her brother’s hand on that very night. Was she unwell? She had to be old, too. Or maybe he was wicked and had no one in his life due to his own fault. But I looked at the elderly man lying in the hospital bed and couldn’t imagine him unkind. He looked like he had once been an English teacher. Perhaps he was a lifetime bachelor or a widow?
Matthew’s bony fingers grasped mine.
In a flash, I was holding Mom’s hand on her seventh day of hospice as she slipped away, quietly in her dimly lit room with flowers on her nightstand.
“Remember me,” Matthew begged.
“I promise,” I said.
My eyes returned to my tattered blue prayer book, and I read aloud the prayers before slipping into a meditative state. Matthew didn’t utter another word. He only squeezed my hand from time to time, his eyes closed, his body still.
A gentle tap on my shoulder made me jump. The next volunteer had arrived. It was shortly after midnight.
As I stood to leave, Matthew’s breathing changed. It grew louder, as if he struggled for breath. But I’d learned that the noise signaled he was in the active dying process, not suffering.
I wished I’d worn a heavier coat as I shivered walking home. I was in the mood to wander, not go to bed. My thoughts lingered on Matthew. Would he die during the night or make it to Christmas? Would his sister arrive?
I thought how if my life was rewound and someone had told me a decade ago that in my late 30s, I’d be a hospice volunteer helping people die, I’d have laughed my nervous laugh. The one that used to surface too much when I wasn’t playing a role, when I had to be myself, or the self that I felt everyone expected of me. But sitting with Matthew, I could be a me I didn’t know existed. I could let go of my chronic anxiety and be still and strong for a dying stranger. My botched love life and work pressures didn’t matter while sitting and holding Matthew’s hand. Simply being present for him could let the imminently dying man feel less alone.
I called my closest niece. “Will you take care of me when I’m old?”
“No. I’ll hire someone,” she said, triggering my fear. Had I not done enough to create connections?
On Christmas, I walked to Central Park, gazing across the reservoir and at the perfect blue sky. I looked at the runners speeding past and the walkers strolling by. Matthew’s voice echoed in my head.
I booked a trip for my niece and me to go to Paris and Lourdes, a pilgrimage site important to my mother. I scheduled testing with a fertility clinic to freeze my eggs, and I tried a new approach to dating, taking my time to connect. I signed up to serve more patients. I took a three-month leave-of-absence from work to care for my elderly father in Missouri and met Steve, my husband. I enrolled to be certified as an end-of-life doula.
In New York, a month after our wedding, I gave Steve a mini tour of my old neighborhood. Pausing in front of Matthew’s nursing home, I told Steve about my vigil experience.
“You remember your patient every time you commit more to living,” Steve said.
I slipped my arm through his, fully present.
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