From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Synergetic Souls

The harsh clamor of my alarm roused me from placid slumber. Exhausted from working late the night before, a million tasks awaited me at home. All of this, combined with the fact that it was Labor Day, made it especially difficult to drag myself out of bed, but thankfully I did.

This was Monday, my regular volunteer day at the Bailey-Boushay House, an adult day-health and residential care facility for people living with AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses. When I first arrived, it was unusually quiet. After checking in with two different floors, I thought about heading home.

Just then one of the nurses came up to me and spoke of a patient who was having an especially hard time. “I can’t stay with Igor right now, but could you go and sit by his side and calm him as best you can?”

“Sure. It doesn’t look like much is going on this morning anyway.” As I turned to walk down the hall, the nurse added, “By the way, I think you should know that Igor is a Russian concert pianist, and he is dying.” I nodded silently and proceeded on my way.

As a volunteer, my first priority was to provide companionship, as well as to run errands for the residents and take them to their doctors’ appointments. Each Monday brought a unique set of experiences.

When I walked into his room, I noticed that Igor was semicomatose. As I sat beside him, holding his hand and talking to him, I didn’t feel as if I were making a connection. When I decided to move my chair to the other side of his bed, I found a letter sitting on the night table, so I decided to read it to him.

The letter was spiritual and heartfelt. It mentioned how much joy Igor and his music had brought to this world. His friend also reminded Igor how much he adored Beethoven, Bach and Schubert, and how Igor would soon be playing the piano for the angels in heaven.

All of a sudden Igor’s eyes began to open, so I read the letter again. Then, without even thinking twice, I stood up, placed a CD in the stereo and pushed play. Beautiful piano music played as I placed my hand on his chest. It seemed like a soothing, peaceful and centering gesture.

Igor’s chest muscles were tight and his breathing labored. “Igor, it’s okay to go. It’s time,” I whispered. Softly I said, “Relax, take deep breaths and feel the music.” Much to my surprise, he did. Igor’s muscles calmed, and his breathing slowed. Then, like a proud coach, I said, “Wonderful. Do it again . . . Perfect!” Igor had a shining sparkle in his eyes.

I guess you have to be somewhat of a perfectionist to be a concert pianist, I deduced. Igor liked being perfect. It almost seemed as though he were performing his final concert. I continued speaking positive words of encouragement. At one point, I thought he might like me to place my hand on his forehead, but as I moved my hand, he reached up and brought it back to his chest.

At last, Igor took his last breath. I waited and asked, “Are you there yet?” When he started to come back, I said, “No . . . no,” as I patted his chest. “You made it. I am proud of you.” Then Igor let go.

I stayed with him about ten minutes and collected myself. I couldn’t believe I had it in me to do something like that. Our souls had connected. I felt overwhelmed by the power of the human spirit.

As a nurse in a childbirth center, I’m accustomed to guiding women through labor almost every day. I surprised myself by saying the exact same things to Igor that I usually say to women in labor.

As I sat by Igor’s side, I contemplated how these intense and magical experiences of birth and death are similar. From the moment of birth to the moment of death, we all need encouragement, love and the human touch.

Malinda Carlile

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