I Look Into The Eyes

Once, while a hospice chaplain, I did an ordinary day of visits . . .

There are four small rooms and a bathroom. The house is a ramshackle structure containing worn-out furniture and peeling paint. One of the rooms is a bedroom, jammed with a double and a single bed. The cramped space has no air conditioning and the outside triple-digit temperature is forcing itself inside.

A man is alone on the single bed. He is dying, but I look into his eyes and see life. Several members of the family hover around his bed, anticipating his desire for a sip of water, fluffing his pillow, and whispering prayers.

Later, another place welcomes me after the outside security gate is unlocked. I enter through the front door—with more locks—into spaciousness cooled by silent air conditioning. The office I walk by on the way to the bedroom is filled with framed photos, awards and citations. All of the office’s memorabilia surround an immense desk. In the master bedroom, past the office and by a solarium with its filtered sunlight, a hospital bed holds a man.

His face turns toward me as I enter. He is dying, but I look into his eyes and see life. He seems happy to see me, and gestures toward a chair.

On the third and final visit of the day, I arrive at the home of a new patient. I carefully explain who I am: a chaplain. And what I’m here for: letting them know I’m available if the family desires spiritual support. The wife tells me that her husband, the hospice patient, isn’t up to meeting with me today.

“But I am glad you came. Please sit wherever you want,” she says.

I choose the sofa. A free-standing fan hums and swirls in the middle of the living room floor. By the front door a glass-walled cabinet displays wedding photos. After leaving momentarily to help her husband, she returns, sits near me, and I share a little about my background and some information about hospice.

Attentive and alert, she nods her head as she listens. In a room I have not seen, her husband rests. He is dying, but I look into her eyes and see life. She rarely interrupts; her questions are specific and thoughtful.

One day. Three visits. The first was with a man who was a new patient. Yesterday, he told the nurse he was “scared shitless of dying.” Just over fifty, he lives in near poverty. The second is with a man I’ve visited regularly for weeks. In his late seventies, his house reflects a lifetime of success. The third visit was for sharing basic information. Though I never saw the patient that day, his chart noted he was in his sixties. His wife, next to me on the edge of a sofa, listened attentively to every word I said about what hospice could do for her husband.

When I started working in hospice, my older sister’s reaction was, “Won’t you be depressed all the time?”

On the surface, it would seem inevitable that my sister would be correct. Before starting hospice chaplaincy, I could have guessed that I would visit families where someone—whether twenty or eighty years old—was dying. And I could have guessed I’d enter houses where one place might have peeling paint and another a sun-dappled solarium.

But now, having visited so many people, one thing I know for certain is what it means to sit down by someone touched by life’s final moments.

I look into the eyes of family and friends, of patients and potential patients. Tears flow, or are barely held back. Floating in those tears, like a lifeboat overwhelmed with too many passengers, are fears, doubts, hopes, longing and exhaustion. And more. I look into the eyes and there is no poverty or luxury, no age, no difference in skin color or religious background or sexual orientation or any other distinctions we too often use.

I won’t sugarcoat or romanticize the moments I’ve had with families dealing with death. Sometimes, I don’t see any life in the eyes looking back at me. There is only fear or exhaustion. As a Christian, I am deeply grateful that Matthew’s Gospel (27:46) has Jesus, cross-bound and deserted, quoting the opening of Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” While the Biblical scholarship that influences me causes me to question whether it was Jesus who actually spoke those words or if it was a theologically-inspired addition by Matthew’s author, the verses proclaim a real, and really difficult, truth.

We can feel forsaken at death, or long before. We can die while we are still breathing. I have visited people where death is what I see in the eyes. Sometimes, when I see the dead looks and the hopeless shrugs, it’s not because I’m visiting someone facing “six months or less to live.” It can be a family where the only way to teach children seems to be to yell at them. It can be a house where everything said about a person’s job is cynical, but no effort is made to change.

And yet on many visits, I look into the eyes and see life. Some people, claiming enough faith to make it through the day, battle back the forsakenness. There are no “last words.” There is only a next word that will be encouraging, and a next attempt at care and compassion.

I arrive to pay a visit. Sometimes I am met, and I am thankful for, the eyes that look back, shining with hope. Shouldn’t it be like that every day, with every person?

Each moment we are alive, we can choose to see the other believing that the life we share, today and now, is a blessing.

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1 Comment

  1. When I was a kid, between the time I was old enough to open the doors to the house and about Junior High School (Middle School today), I remember periodic visits to the house from the milkman (we never saw him, but we routinely left messages for him, fastened to the inside of the silvery aluminum insulated box by our front door, where he replied by leaving the requested milk products (always just milk).

    I remember periodic visits from the “baker”, the delivery truck which brought sunbeam bread around twice a week, usually leaving a single loaf of white bread, which was just about all he had in the truck (no 20 different varieties, or the Pepperidge Farm style of loaf which states fresh until the eschaton.

    I remember periodic visits from the Fuller Brush man. Seems like about once every two to three months. I don’t remember our ever buying anything from him, but he was cheerful.

    I remember when a doctor actually made a house call to see my grandmother.

    Those are all gone. I don’t even have a good personal relation with my UPS delivery guy, whom, thanks to my enriching Amazon.com, usually stops by about once a week. Three times a week when I’m sussing out books I need to do papers. A patient can be on their death bed, and it needs a $1000 ambulance ride with two burly EMS hands to get the patient to the doctor’s office.

    But pastors and other representatives of the church still make house calls. That says something. It is especially comforting when I look ahead and anticipate dying alone, with no family stopping by except maybe once every two weeks, while, in the meantime, I get really good at Solitare on my laptop, which by that time will cost $2.95, and have a zillion meg of memory.

    It seems ironic that what little I now of hospice care seems to be a matter of distracting attention from the inevitable.

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