This is part of a regular series of posts about bearing witness to death in the ICU after the withdrawal of mechanical ventilation. For more background information, read this first. As always, names and identifying information have been changed.
If I had to define my job as chaplain with one verb, it would be listening. Chaplains are trained to listen well. We listen to emotions, complaints, stories, everything. It is by listening that we get to know the other person’s shared humanity. By listening, we come to recognize the soul.
I have the pleasure of hearing stories about patients told by their loved ones. By being an outsider in the room with them, I serve as a reason for them to share all sorts of stories about the one who is dying. They educate me about the individual’s personality; including their quirks and idiosyncrasies. They fill me in on the history of their lives and loves. Sometimes the stories are funny and the room fills with laughter and joy. There is a temporary relief from the heaviness the family has been feeling. The pendulum of mood swings toward sadness as more tragic accounts and events are remembered. And the realization that the patient will no longer be here to tell his/her own stories anymore.
I listen to these stories that are presented. Nodding and smiling appropriately, occasionally I’ll ask a follow up question. And I take note as the wording changes. There is a switching back and forth between referring to the patient in the present and the past tenses. The family tries out the language of moving on. They sense their comfort one moment and then perhaps revert back the next. I hang in the balance with them as they seek to figure it out.
Lewis’ family shared lots of stories in his final moments. He was surrounded by his wife, his two sisters, one brother, his daughter, two nieces, one nephew and some family friends. I spent a couple hours listening to their stories; these are a few of them.
Lewis has style. He loves picking out his clothes and getting his hair done. He even goes to the nail salon. They know him there. I don’t get my nails done, but he gets his done once a week. And boy does he like accessorizing. He has these outrageous alligator shoes. We were going to have a party for him next week on the anniversary of his transplant. He was so excited. He already had his outfit picked out. It’s been hanging right there, all put together in the closet. Maybe that’s what I’ll bury him in. I mean, not the shoes maybe. I’ll save those, they’re expensive and I think I’d like to give them to one of his sons. They don’t really need shoes do they? You never see anyone’s feet at the wake.
He’s a good cook. He would fry up turkeys all the time in the back yard. That was his specialty. But above all, brother loves scallions. He puts them in everything. Most people use onions or other herbs, nope, he uses scallions. Scallions in burgers, rice, salads, he put them on the turkey too. He would get worried when he ran out, he would always say “I gotta get to the store and get some scallions.” The people at the store now will probably wonder why they have so many scallions when they used to sell so much. They’ll miss him!
He loves to dance, especially to the oldies. He was at a wedding last week, while everything was still looking good. He was the king of the dance floor and he has these crazy moves, and he went like this (thrusts his hip back and forth quickly) and knocks this poor guy to the floor. (The victim turned out to be an aging local celebrity) And his bodyguards ran over, they thought he was trying to pick a fight, but Lewis didn’t even realize what had happened, he went on dancing and then the bodyguards realized he didn’t mean no harm. It was funny though. If I ever see (the celebrity) around town, I’m going to ask him about it. I bet he’ll remember my brother!
He was a good dad. Always there for his daughter. And for everyone really. He has a good heart, you know. Just saw to it that everyone was taken care of. When his daughter was little, he found out that a kid in school with her didn’t have heat during the winter. The kid’s family couldn’t afford it. Wouldn’t you know that he talked to some shops and businesses and convinced them to sponsor this family, to pay their heating bills. And he didn’t make no fuss of it either. There aren’t too many men around anymore who have a heart like that. It’s a shame we’re losing one when they’re so rare.