Afraid of the Night

Afraid of the Night

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories of Faith

Afraid of the Night

For what is it to die, but to stand in the sun and melt into the wind? And
when the Earth has claimed our limbs, then we shall truly dance.

~Kahlil Gibran

Death came to call most often in the early morning hours. Sometimes peacefully, taking my patient as he dreamed. Sometimes violently, with a rattle deep in the throat. Sometimes Death came like a refreshing breeze and carried away my long-suffering patient like a buoyant kite cut loose in the wind, leaving her pain behind. Sometimes it was only after much pumping and pounding and fluids and medications and electrical shocking that we allowed Death to come. But, for whatever rationale, it was my personal observation that Death came to call most frequently in the early morning hours, and for that solitary reason I came to dread the night shift.

Until Olga.

Olga was a terminal-cancer patient whose family could no longer endure the hardship of caring for her at home. It was the family decision, with this strong matriarch leading the family, to place her in one of the beds our tiny hospital designated for long-term, palliative care. Olga firmly insisted they pay only for thirty days because she had chosen the Fourth of July to be her “freedom day”—her chosen day to die. Her doctor, on the other hand, stated his expectations. Although she was terminal, she would probably live three to six months, and her demise would be a slow and probably very painful process. He gave orders to provide comfort measures and allow complete freedom for family visitation.

The family came faithfully every day, often staying for hours talking or just sitting with Olga and listening to the radio perpetually playing the Christian music she loved. When the song “I Give You Love” would play, Olga smiled broadly and announced, “That’s my favorite song. That’s the last song I want to hear when I die.”

On the night of July third, I came on duty as charge nurse for the night shift. According to report, Olga’s family had been in to see her that evening and left instructions for the nurses not to call them if “it happened,” as they had all said their goodbyes. “Please allow Reverend Steve to sit with her,” they said. “He wants to accompany her in her passage.” With the warped humor only nurses understand, the evening shift joked, “Olga’s vital signs are stable and there’s nothing physiologically to indicate her death is imminent. Lucky you. You’re going to have to deal with Olga in the morning, and boy is she going to be mad that she’s still here!”

But, things are different at night. Night is when we are closer to ourselves, and closer to our cardinal truths and ideas. I checked on Olga and, pulling her covers up around her shoulders, whispered, “Good night, beautiful lady.”

Olga smiled and whispered back, “Good night and goodbye. You know, tomorrow is my freedom day.” A warm sense of calm settled about my shoulders—a strong but strangely comforting awareness that she might be right, even though it went against logic, reason and educated predications. Though her vital signs were unchanged, I left the room feeling Olga was very much in control of her destiny.

Throughout the night, Mary, the other nurse on duty, and I turned Olga and provided care. Reverend Steve sat holding her hand, and together they listened as the radio softly played one song after another. When we returned to her room mid-shift, Olga did not arouse as we gently repositioned her.

At 6:00 A.M., just as the sun cast a warm rosy glow through the windows, Mary and I returned to her room. Reverend Steve requested we wait just a few minutes as he felt Olga was “almost through her passage.” As I stood at the foot of her bed watching this young minister accompanying Olga to her journey’s door, I was filled with awe and a sense of envy of the mastery this strong and beautiful woman had over her life. Out of habit, I checked my watch and began counting her respirations, one—two—three. At that moment, a song began on the radio and a smile spread over Olga’s sleeping face. “I Give You Love”—four—five—six....

Olga accomplished not one, but two of her last life goals. The Fourth of July was her day of freedom from the pain of her disease. And the last song she ever heard was her favorite.

I have often remembered that night over the years and felt that Olga’s story should be told. Because this strong and beautiful woman chose not to “rage against the dying of the light,” but to accept it—even welcome it—as entry into the light. Because of Olga I have a much deeper appreciation for endings and beginnings, for the cycles of life and death.

And, because of Olga, I no longer fear the night.

~Nancy Harless

Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul

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