A Lesson in Saying Good-bye

A Lesson in Saying Good-bye

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

A Lesson in Saying Good-bye

Love one human being purely and warmly and you will love all.

Jean Paul Richter

As I sat with my father during his final days, my mind sometimes wandered to years gone by. One afternoon my thoughts drifted back to my sixteenth year, when the mother of my future husband was dying from breast cancer. When she told me, “I’m dying,” all I could manage to reply was, “I know.” I was young and inexperienced and felt terribly inadequate.

But now, after more than twenty years of nursing, I’ve learned that there are many ways of dealing with death. One death in particular affected me tremendously.

On that memorable day, Terri, the night nurse, told me in report that Paddy Doyle had been admitted the previous evening. A spirited elderly man, Paddy had been a patient many times in the past. He was as jolly as Santa Claus, and we’d all grown fond of him.

But this time he was dying.

Terri said, “His wife went home ‘to refresh’ late last evening. She left strict instructions to be called if his status changed. Did you know they just celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary? It’s so sad.

“Paddy’s feet are dusky and he’s been slipping in and out of consciousness for the last hour. I called his wife and she’s on her way.”

The words were barely out of her mouth when Mrs. Doyle glided down the hallway, looking so elegant that I could hardly believe she’d been a bride sixty years ago. She looked as though she’d had her hair coiffed at the beauty parlor and her makeup was flawless. I doubted that she’d slept a wink getting ready for her final date with her husband.

She took the news of his impending death in a dignified way. Squaring her narrow shoulders, she made her way to his room, her feet barely making a sound on the polished floor.

Being young, I didn’t want to consider that someday I might have to go through the same thing with my own husband. I wanted to cry for her loss. They hadn’t had children, and most of their relatives were old and sick. How was she going to adjust to being alone?

On my rounds to assess patients, I paused outside of Paddy’s closed door. I didn’t know what to say to this couple, who were like grandparents to me.

I knocked lightly on the door but got no answer. As I started to walk away, the door slowly opened.

“Come in, child,” said Mrs. Doyle graciously, stepping back from the door.

He looks awful, I thought as I approached my patient. Why is this so hard? I wish I’d called in sick.

I immediately regretted my sentiments. Better get your act together. She’s going to need you.

Then I noticed that she didn’t need me. In fact, she was holding up quite well.

Mrs. Doyle resumed her business and seemed unaware of my presence. She spoke to her husband softly, saying, “I’m going to get you cleaned up, Paddy.”

“Do you need help?” I asked.

“No dear. We can manage.” With that, she moved to the sink to fill a basin with water.

I listened while she told him, “I’m going to wash your face now.” He muttered something unintelligible. I don’t know how she understood what he said, but she did. Locks of his white hair had fallen across his brow. As she swept the strands back, she murmured, “There they go again.” I realized I’d witnessed an intimate moment that had been repeated for sixty years.

With her fingertips, she lightly caressed the back of his hand, then scooped his hand into hers. “There now,” she said. He gave her hand a barely perceptible squeeze.

I suddenly noticed that the air was filled with cologne. After all the time I’d spent caring for Paddy, I’d never noticed his scent before.

Paddy stirred.

“Hush, I’m right here.” Mrs. Doyle sat on the edge of the bed. She gazed into his clouded blue eyes. “It’s okay. I won’t leave.”

That was it. I started looking for the exit. It was breaking my heart to watch them on this day, their last together. Of course she wasn’t going to leave him, but I could.

Hesitating by the door, I wondered, How is she doing it? I’d be crying and screaming mad at the whole world.

Mrs. Doyle reached into her pocket and withdrew her rosary. She began to pray.

Clutching my necklace cross for strength, I prayed too. God, let this be over for Paddy. Please don’t make him suffer any longer.

As I held tight to my cross and closed my eyes, something strange happened—I felt the presence of someone else in the room. Opening my eyes, I saw only the elderly couple. I closed my eyes and felt it again. Someone or something else was there.

I opened my eyes and saw a young couple, lovers, gazing into each other’s eyes. Two people meeting and falling in love and laughing. I could feel the joy inside the sorrow. A feeling of peace came over me.

I’d found what I’d desperately needed. I walked over to the bed and gave Mrs. Doyle a hug. I held Paddy’s hand and told him, “I’m going to miss your smile.”

Then I left the room. This was their time to say good-bye.

My father stirred as I held his hand. I said, “Hush Dad, I’m right here. I won’t leave you.”

Barbara Scales
as previously published in Nursing ©2005

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