By Linda Piotrowski
In each NACC Now, during this 50th jubilee year, we are featuring a reflection by one of our NACC chaplains on his or her ministry and an experience of a gift of that ministry. Please read Linda Piotrowski’s reflection, and allow it to inspire you to share this year in writing one of your “gifts” of ministry. Your own reflection is welcomed! If you want to share a reflection, please contact David Lewellen (firstname.lastname@example.org).
It was time for our weekly meeting at a large nursing home in Milwaukee. We cared for elderly, developmentally disabled, brain-damaged, and Alzheimer’s patients, and had recently added a specialized oncology unit.
The oncologist described a new patient I will call Donny, whom he had met at a homeless clinic where he volunteered. He told us Donny was 61, born somewhere in the South, and had been alcoholic and homeless for most of his adult life, traveling from state to state. He was suspicious of anyone wanting to pry into his life. A slightly built man to begin with, he was now nearly skeletal from the cancer that had metastasized throughout his body.
At that time I had been a certified chaplain for three years. As I did my rounds, I sought out Donny. In the bed I saw a slight black man with huge eyes in a thin face. I could see patches of his scalp. He had long, narrow fingers. I said hello, introduced myself, and asked if I might visit another day. He barely acknowledged me but didn’t say no.
Subsequent visits didn’t get much further. I tried everything I could think of to engage him in conversation, to no avail. I could only imagine the prejudice he most likely experienced from white people when he was growing up in the South. I decided to tackle it head-on. I wondered aloud if being surrounded by white people when he was sick and vulnerable was hard for him. I asked him if do-gooders like me drove him crazy.
To my surprise, he chuckled. Then he began to laugh. He told me that I was the first white lady to care about what he thought. He said he liked that I didn’t give up when he ignored me. He asked me why I cared.
I told him that from the time I was a little girl, I had been taught to love and respect everyone. I told Donny that I could see that he was very sick and possibly dying, and I wanted to be with him as he faced this hard time in his life. He expressed surprise that anyone would care about him. He spoke just a little bit that day. But it was a breakthrough.
On my next visit I took along a Bible. Like a typical Northerner, I thought that being from the South meant he went to a Bible-based church. I asked if he had favorite passages he could remember from his childhood, and he mentioned a couple and asked me to read them.
As time went by I was able to report a developing relationship with Donny at our weekly care meetings. He never shared about his recent or distant past. He did not want to explore where he had been or what his life had been like. I could only report that I cared for Donny and hoped that he was experiencing God’s love and care through my presence and caring.
Meanwhile, Donny became weaker and suffered more pain. After about seven weeks, I went into his room and discovered he was in the dying process. I sat by his bedside and asked what I might do for him. He asked me to read the Bible. He especially loved Isaiah 43:4: “You are precious to me and honored and I love you.”
The next day, Donny was struggling to breathe. I sat at his bedside and read his favorite Scripture passages. He grabbed my hand. He turned his head toward me and kept pleading, “Linda, come with me. I’m afraid. Come with me.”
Within myself I began to panic. I said, “Donny, I can’t come with you. When we die, it is something each one of us has to do by ourselves. You are brave. You’ve been by yourself for many years. I wish I could come with you, but I can’t.” He continued to hold tightly to my hand and repeatedly begged, “Please, please, come with me.”
Desperately, I prayed. I asked God to help me comfort this man I had come to love. Suddenly I heard something deep within me. Still holding his hand, I said aloud, “Donny, remember what Jesus said? ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. When I have a place ready I will come and take you with me. Do not be afraid.’
“Remember, Donny? I’m here with you now, but when the time comes, Jesus will take your hand and lead you into heaven. You won’t be alone and you don’t have to be afraid.” I kept repeating this to him.
The next morning I went to Donny’s room. He had lapsed into a coma during the night and looked peaceful. I sat, held his hand, softly sang some hymns, read his favorite psalms to him, and repeated the Scripture verse. After about an hour and a half, his breathing began to slow. I knew from experience that it wouldn’t be long. As I sat there silently praying I looked at his face. He had a slight smile. He dropped my hand. He reached up. He reached out. He grasped for a hand I could not see. Donny died shortly after that.
I have no scientific proof that Jesus was there in Donny’s room grasping his hand as he took his final breath. Yet I believe with every fiber of my being that at the moment of his death, Donny saw the face of God and grasped the hand of Christ. It comforts me to this day to know that this man who had been alone and homeless most of his adult life at the end had the comfort and companionship of the One who loves and comforts each one of us.
Linda F. Piotrowski, BCC, is retired from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH, where she was the pastoral care coordinator for the Palliative Care Service.