Monday, August 24, 2009

"Don't Be Afraid to Die"

"Don't be afraid to die," I tell her.  I sit at the edge of her bed rubbing her narrow foot through a thin sheet.  The combination of cafeteria food, soiled adult diapers, antiseptics and cleansers of various types all  make me quesy. I have been coming to visit Thelma every month for three years now.  She is dying.  My heart aches with a mixture of emotions.  I'm happy for her. I'm sad for myself and the rest of the world as I say my goodbyes.  I know I'll never forget her.

Thelma fell victim to stroke a ltittle over three years ago.  Before the stroke she enjoyed the busy life of a mother of 7 and grandmother to many.  Thelma was born in Mexico and then came to the United States to marry.  She spoke both Spanish and English with perfect fluency.  The stroke resulted in the paralysis of her entire left side, the blinding of her left eye and the permanent inability to remember the English language.  Her children decided it was too great a burden to care for her themselves so they combined financial efforts and  placed her in a care faciltiy for the elderly.

From the first moment I came to see her I knew she was special.  I timidly poked my head in her doorway and was greeted with a huge smile that spaned only half of her face.  She sat in a wheelchair facing the television with colored markers on her lap and in her hand.  "You can have this picture I painted," she said, gesturing toward the bed beside her to a picture of hummingbirds and flowers. it had been ripped from a coloring coloring book and only half of the birds had been colored.  "Have a seat. Can I offer you any juice?".  I saw she meant for me to sit on her bed.  The juice to which she was refering was in a small dixie cup with a straw sticking out.  Since half of it had obviously already been consumed I politely declined. That day I sat and let her gossip about all the staff and residents at the home.  At one point, an employee came into the room to bring her some fresh water.  Thelma leaned in and whispered confidentialy that this particular employee enjoyed stealing Thelma's clothes when she was asleep.  She gave me a knowing look and then smiled politely at the English speaking nurse. From the beginining I knew I'd found a friend.

I continued to visit her every month.  Sometimes I brought my children with me. I wanted them to meet her and also to give them the opportunity to feel the warmth of serving someone else.  Thelma, however, refused to let them leave empty handed. She would always find a gift of some kind to send home with my little ones.  Whether she regifted something obviously given to her by someone else or gave them a craft she had made they never went away empty handed.  She understood service too.

October of 2008 I went to visit her early in the month.  My nails happened to be painted black.  "I want you to paint my nails that color for Halloween!" she said excitedly.  "I want to be a witch and scare my friends.  I'll grow my nails long.  I have a hat!."  Her enthusiasm and smile were infecious.  I returned October 30th to paint her nails.  She had not allowed anyone to cut them so they were considerably long.  She giggled like a school girl the entire time I painted.  My children and I returned dressed in our costumes to find her wearing a black t-shirt and a black witch hat with straw sticking out beneath it.  She had me wheel her around the entire facitily with my children in tow.  We created our very own Halloween parade for her friends.

On some occasions I would find her very depressed.  She often relayed to me she wished she could die.  she asked me why God hadn't taken her home yet.  I tried to answer her but I knew the best thing I could do was listen.  "This body doesn't work anymore!  I'm tired of staring at a blank wall everyday.  All I do is wait. I'm tired of waiting."

So now here I sit. Even with oxygen tubes she struggles to breathe.  He eyes are closed and she cannot respond to me the way she has in the past.  I've spent a great deal of time listening.  It is my turn to talk.  My heart burns within me and I hear words escape my mouth almost without permission. I feel inspired.  "Thelma, you have told me many times you wish to go home.  Don't be afriad to die.  There are many people on the other side who love you. They are waiting for you.  Everybody here is fine.  I can see you don't feel well.  I can see you are in pain."  As I speak I watch her face.  Right eyebrow raises and her mouth moves as if to speak, but nothing come out.  "I love you, Thelma.  Heavenly Father and Jesus love you." Her foot twitches.  I fall silent.  A hymn comes to my mind and before I can think to stop myself I find I'm softly singing the words in Spanish.  "Asombro me da el amor que me da Jesus. Confuso estoy por su gracia y por su luz. Y tiemblo al ver que por mi El su vida dio. Por mi tan indigno su sangre se deramo...." (I stand all amazed at the love Jeseus offers me. Confused at the Grace that so fully he profers me. I tremble to know that for me he was crucified. That for me, a sinner, he suffered he bled and died.) My voice is clear and soft. Her body relaxes a bit.  She struggles a bit less for breath.  A slight smile forms on the right side of her face.  Before I leave I give her kiss on the cheek. I will miss you.

Thelma was moved to hospice care two days ago.  I am so grateful for the chance to have met her. My life is richer because of her.  My children have benefited from her generosity, love and because she allowed them to understand the joy of service.