Norris Burkes
Posted Jun 4, 2017 at 1:00 AM

Do you think we’ll recognize each other in the next life?” asked Dr. Nesbitt, stopping me just short of our morning staff meeting.

I shot him a puzzled look and he returned fire with a rolling chair in my direction. Nesbitt was the Medical Director of our hospice group. He reminds me of Dr. McCoy from Star Trek because he was both lovable and cantankerous. Mostly, he adored unanswerable questions.

“I think the Bible hints at it. I don’t think there’s a clear answer,” I answered.

“I guess I haven’t told you about Josefina.”

“No,” I said. I settled into my chair, as he’d obviously set me up to hear another one of his stories he calls “Hospice Goosebumps.”

“Josefina died a few years back, but not before she taught us a thing or two,” Nesbit said.

“She was my patient for nearly six months when she went into transition,” said the doctor, using a hospice euphemism for dying. “She became deeply comatose for five days without eating, drinking or speaking.”

Even as a chaplain, I know that a patient will often pass within three days without water, but apparently Josefina had extraordinary care from three attentive daughters who lived nearby. But more than that, she seemed to be postponing her death until her fourth daughter could arrive from the Philippines.

On the fifth day, the last daughter arrived and all four were standing watch over Josefina when their doorbell rang. At the door was the team’s hospice social worker, Margaret, who’d come by for a final visit.

The daughters invited Margaret into the crowded bedroom where a very devout Catholic family had set up candles, pictures, rosaries and statues of saints. Margaret had visited the room multiple times, but never with so many visitors and the elaborate altar-like displays.

Margaret paused to decide how she’d get close enough to bring some encouraging words. Then it came to her. She just up and crawled into Josefina’s double bed and whispered softly into her ear.

“Your daughters are all here now. It’s OK to let go.”

I nodded toward Nesbitt, acknowledging, “Those are good words I’ve used myself to encourage patients who are having trouble letting go.”

Nesbitt continued. “Yes, but Josefina remained quiet, undisturbed, giving no hint she would heed this advice.”

Margaret gave it one last try, this time with some light levity. “By the way, when you get to heaven, look around for a feisty little Italian lady. That’ll probably be my mom. Please tell her “hi” for me.”

With that, Josephina suddenly opened her eyes wide, turned her head to the startled social worker and said loud and clear, “Rose?”

“Margaret burst into tears,” Nesbitt stated as matter of fact.

Startled, I blurted, “Wait! What? Our social worker started crying?”

I asked because I knew hospice staff will try to keep their own emotions at bay. The family must feel their own grief, not that of the worker.

“Why was she crying?”

“Care to venture a guess as to the name of our social worker’s feisty Italian mother?” Nesbitt asked.

“Rose?” I said, but there was no volume in my throat.

“Josefina died a few minutes later,” Nesbitt added. He gave his story an impactful moment before he restated his original question.

“So now do you think we will recognize each other in heaven?”

I stood and slowly walked toward our meeting. I don’t suppose I ever did give him a good answer.

However, let me say, if you get to heaven and see a crusty old doctor, wearing a wry smile and pitching confounding questions to a crowd, that’s likely to be Nesbitt. Say hello for me, would you?

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