Mr. Johnson rarely spoke.
Once, when he threw up, he told me he was sorry. I just patted his shoulder and cleaned him up, reassuring him it was okay; that it was better, in fact, to get it out than to have an upset stomach.
Another day, he pointed at his watch and I leaned over his frail frame in that hospital bed and read him the time. When I turned to leave, I heard him try to say something but I couldn’t really understand him. I think he was trying to say thank you.
When a person lives as long as Mr. Johnson, time has a way of being measured less by the ticking of the clock and more by the ability to take another breath.
The next morning, Mr. Johnson wasn’t himself. He desperately clutched at the blankets and tucked them under his chin when I tried getting him up for the bathroom. His eyes stared back at me, vacant, scared, as I tried reasoning with him. Finally, he let me help him but then he yelled at me, just an awful low-pitched wail when I put a new gown on him after cleaning him up a bit. And after I put on his watch, he kept trying to take it off.
I left it on the nightstand, puzzled a bit because he always, always wore his watch.
But the day Mr. Johnson died, he wasn’t wearing it.
In the medical field, we’re taught how a patient’s gut feelings are often correct long before those feelings become a reality and maybe Mr. Johnson knew; just maybe he knew his time was going to run out that day.
After he died, I took care of him for the last time.
I closed his eyes. I changed his diaper. And I put his leather watch on.
Just when I was finishing up, his daughter arrived.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said, “I’ll give you some privacy. I’ll be outside if you need anything.”
“Please, stay…” She isn’t looking at me but now she has crossed the room and is holding her dad’s hand within her own.
The tears start then, deep sobs starting slow, then faster, until she’s rocking back and forth so I put my arm around her.
Five minutes pass and neither of us says anything.
Finally, she smiles up at me. “Thank you.” I watch as her fingers caress her fallen tears off the face of the watch. “He always wore this watch. Even now, it’s kinda funny, he’s wearing it.”
I don’t tell her he wasn’t wearing it when he died. But then I also don’t tell her when a person dies, they often lose control of their bowels. Or that their eyelids stay open.
My shift ends and I drive home to my little apartment. And when I’m inside, after I’ve locked the door, I just can’t hold it in any longer and suddenly, its hard to breathe.
I just want to wash away the day, wash away how awful it was, all the sadness, all the hopelessness. So I slip out of my shoes and climb into the shower and the water is cold but I don’t care. It soaks my scrubs and I slide down the shower wall and pull my knees to my chest and just cry.
I don’t pray. I don’t ask God for strength.
But eventually, I find it within me to stand so I peel the wet clothes away and the spray is bitter against my skin but I’m alive, I’m okay, and what happened with Mr. Johnson isn’t awful anymore. Instead, I feel honored to have been there; honored to have helped in those last few hours.
Stepping from the shower, I glance in the mirror at eyes red with tears and I’m staring straight into God’s plan for my life. Here, in this holy moment, I pray.
When I tell people this story, their normal response is, “God bless you” but I’m here to tell you, there is no amount of good in a person that displaces the need for a redemptive Savior. And at the hospital, when I sling my stethoscope around my neck at the beginning of a shift, I close my eyes a moment and remember.
I remember from whence cometh my strength.
[photo: alexkerhead, Creative Commons]