By Norris Burkes Feb 7, 2016
As a part-time hospice chaplain, I often get unnecessary sympathy from friends and acquaintances.
They say things like, “Your job must be so sad.” Or “I can’t say I envy you.”
The irony is that I rarely feel sad. Instead, I am honored to be present in that sacred moment when someone takes their final breath on this earth. Take for example the family who called me on a dreary day last month requesting that I bring a blessing for their dying mother.
I immediately hopped in my car and set my windshield wipers on delay to wipe away the drizzle of the indecisive rain. A few minutes later, I rang the doorbell to a home not far from mine.
A dour woman in her 60s answered the door. She introduced herself as the patient’s daughter and then led me to the kitchen where she’d been discussing funeral plans with our hospice nurse.
As we sat down together, the devoted daughter explained how she’d recently quit her job to take care of her mother.
“My mother is a lifelong Catholic, so she’d appreciate a blessing.”
“Where is she now?” I asked.
“Sleeping in the master bedroom,” she said, nodding toward the hallway.
“She’s unrousable,” added the nurse.
I stood in anticipation they’d join me.
“I’m not religious at all,” the daughter said. “You go ahead.”
Feeling dismissed, I walked down the darkened hallway with some confusion in tow. I’m a bit unclear what people want me to do in these solo situations. Am I supposed to arouse the loved one like a nurse who awakes her patient for medication? Or should I whisper a prayer so as not to disturb the patient?
I also wondered how I would feel in her position. I might be thinking, “I’ve got my eternal questions answered, so I don’t want a stranger bothering me on my deathbed.”
Nevertheless, I walked into the master bedroom, filled with the smells of ointments, diapers, and the dust of a well-used room. The woman was sleeping peacefully on her back, hands folded across her stomach.
I reached out with my index finger to trace the shape of the cross on her forehead. With my touch, she startled awake. I took a step back and smiled.
She returned a solemn, unreadable expression. What was she thinking? I was an unescorted stranger in her bedroom. Did she think I was there to do her harm? Was she wondering why she didn’t recognize me?
“I’m Chaplain Norris,” I said. “Your daughter asked me to say a prayer with you.”
A gently creased smile edged across her face, giving a hint of understanding.
I took a retreating step into the hallway and invited the nurse and the woman’s daughter to join what was likely the patient’s last wakened moment. A minute later, we are stood around the bed as the woman blinked in recognition of our intent.
We joined hands and I cleared my throat to say the blessing.
“May you hear the familiar voice of your loved ones,
May you hear the tender call of God’s invitation,
And may you experience the love of both.
With that, our patient shut her eyes and in their closing, I thought I could see traces of the Apostle Paul, who said in 2 Timothy 4:7 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
As I drove to see my next patient, I noticed the rain had given up for the day. I thought about my friends who say this job would be too sad for them. “Sad” is the last word I’d use. It’s not sad. It’s an honor. It’s a calling.
– Hospice organizations need volunteers. Call your local hospice to help. Share your experience with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Twitter @chaplain, or call 843-608-9715. Norris Burkes will be coming to Florida during the first ten days in March. During those weekends, he is available for public speeches, church retreats, marriage seminars, worship services, university or private high school chapels, in-service for healthcare and hospice, and veterans’ events. If you would like to host Norris at your event, please email email@example.com.