Her eyes fluttered as if she were dreaming; I wondered what it was like to be morphine’s pawn. A thick respirator tube pulled the right side of her mouth askew as if she were half-jeering, half-crying…or paralyzed. It was hard to tell which. Her eyelids seemed translucent. Purple and pink spider veins crawled all over them.
Ann was dying.
She roused momentarily when I leaned into her face and spoke her name. “Ann, ANN! I’m here, Ann!” The spiders rolled back, her hazel eyes opened wide, and that stretched-out mouth moved noiselessly in an attempt to speak. I tried to read her lips. “Uncomfortable?” Or was it, “I come for you?” Whatever it was, she mouthed it over and over, silently.
I was masked, gowned, gloved, and shower-capped. Could she tell it was me? Her baby sister?
Her heartbeat pulsed in the veins of her neck. The same heart that had carried her over miles of terrain as a runner and through miles of water as a distance swimmer now pulled her swollen, cancer-ridden body through the final gates of life’s race.
She would finish it belonging to Jesus.
Ann’s eyes opened and stared eerily into mine for maybe thirty seconds. Clear, direct, knowing. What had the doctor said earlier? Hearing was the last thing to go, so I spoke with authority.
“Ann, I see you.”
She looked directly into my soul with dilated pupils.
I choked. Could I say this? My voice quaked and quivered; hands and arms shook involuntarily.
“Ann, the doctor says you’re going to see Jesus soon…and…”
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Just look at her and let her look at you.
“I’m sort of jealous, Ann.”
I stroked her hand – the hand with the slender fingers, her most beautiful physical asset. Her head bobbed with what should have been sobs…if only the plastic tube weren’t there.
Surely this a crime…to be denied the ability to cry…? Silently I begged for somebody to get all that plastic stuff out of her so she could be a person…not just a hunk of dying flesh.
The decision had been made to remove life support. It was just a matter of time now.
Outwardly I smiled at her with my eyes since everything else had to be covered up with medical sterility. I smoothed her forehead as best I could with my rubber-gloved fingers, but the friction pulled at her hair – so made an executive decision.
I would break the rules.
The mask – OFF! The shower cap – OFF! The gown – OFF! The gloves - OFF! There. That was better. Skin on skin. Now maybe I could be a real person.
I bent over Ann’s bed from the waist up – as if drawing her under my wing – and fingered her curly hair. The feeling was that of being a young mother again to this woman who was 11 years older than I, a mother watching helplessly over a sick child who couldn’t understand the reason for her suffering or why it couldn’t just be over.
And then, our moment was gone. Tears streamed down both her cheeks, the spider-veins returned as her eyes closed wearily, her head sagged.
She knew. It would not be long now.
It has been 14 months since I shared this experience. Today at church I heard about holiness from the pulpit, and about another woman who was passing away. And suddenly I remembered those holy moments of pre-death with Ann.
This evening I revisited Ann’s bedside in my memory – saw the clicking machines and the miles of tubes entering her from every possible angle – felt her legs swollen like balloons – rubbed her puffy feet - and wept all over again.
I remembered half a minute that transcended time and space and everything I thought I knew. At the time, I was surprised and changed….carried outside myself, even though I thought both feet were planted firmly. I was transported to another dimension, the same deep and lucid dimension I saw in Ann’s eyes.
Holy moments take us to a place that can only be described by FAITH. The faith that is sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we can’t see. (He. 11:1)
I’m glad I shared those thirty seconds with Ann. They very possibly represented the first and last time our hearts would beat together as one…a foretaste of eternity.