It comes in part from the ages-old human comfort we provide around the click: a cool, damp cloth to a feverish forehead, medicine to ease the pain, help to reposition when a person has no strength of their own; changing soiled linens. But mostly this sense of midwifery comes as we simply, attentively, wait with the person who is dying. Within the waiting – it’s a kind of listening, actually – there is fear sometimes, a sense of awe – an almost tangible Presence with us at the bedside. Accompanying a person leaving this life is not unlike bearing witness to the hard work of a baby being born into this life.
A day after being transferred from the hospital to Joseph’s House, Lisa was silent and watchful. She asked for nothing. Not even for food or pain medication. Careful not to trespass into her space, Pete spoke to Lisa from the doorway. She avoided looking at him. But he read the pain in her face and went and to get the strong medicine her doctor had prescribed. Entering her room this-time, he offered her the medicine with a cup of water. She hadn’t had to ask. Pete was right there. Lisa took the medicine without a word and the pain eased. We might never really know what burdens weigh a person down.
A year before Lisa’s father, Jesse, died at Joseph’s House. She was already sick then. She had AIDS and end-stage lung cancer and was suffering from the death of her eldest child, a son, who had committed suicide. Fighting to hold on, Lisa struggled to care for herself and her six remaining children – the youngest was only six — as long as she could. Jesse used to turn his disability check over to her. Sometimes after talking to Lisa on the phone he would say, like a prayer, “Who will be there for Lisa when I’m gone?”
At ﬁrst, being at Joseph’s House brought Lisa no relief. If anything, it seemed to bring more pain. That she had come here meant she really couldn’t take care of her children any more. While in the hospital this last time her kids had done what children do when their mother’s not there — they ’didn’t show up for school, they ran unsupervised in the street. Child protection services had been called and now the children were in three different foster homes. From her bed Lisa ﬁelds phone calls from the courts and from social workers. What she wants is to be with her children. She does what she can.
Telling Peter to hush! Lisa gestures impatiently toward the television. Pete had stopped by to ask if she was hungry or needed anything. Curious, he sits down at the foot of the bed and turns his attention to the cable TV baby show Lisa is riveted to. Against all odds, the babies – all preemies, all with difficult pregnancies and complicated deliveries – have made it! The camera focuses softly on baby after contented baby snuggled against their exhausted but happy mother. Despite the odds, the babies were going to be okay. Lisa flashes a smile at Pete.
Pete feels the shift in Lisa’s spirit. She might have been watching TV babies, but she was also seeing the strength and resilience, the will to live in her own children. From early on the children had looked out for one another. The day when the social workers had arranged for them to visit their mom at Joseph’s House, Lisa felt their happiness at being with her — she also saw their joy at being all together again. Her children love one another! Lisa can imagine that they will stick together. She believes in their ability to survive. Her children would be alright.
Accompanied by Peter, and another volunteer, Lisa died two days after she and Peter had watched the preemie baby show.