I know what it looks like. Skin goes gray, blue sometimes, and people sleep a lot. They stop eating and talking. Family paces and medicates and dotes and laughs nervously in the corner. Sometimes there’s singing, and there’s almost always crying. I find myself answering the same questions over and over. No, they won’t starve to death. Our bodies know to stop taking food in once we can’t do anything with it. Yes, they can hear you. Right up until the very end, they can hear your voice. It cuts through the fog. No, I don’t know how long they have. I’ve gotten pretty good, where I can usually estimate a matter of days or weeks. But only God has our days numbered.
But I don’t know what dying feels like. And this week, the day after my thirtieth birthday, I got the rare chance to sit with a woman who was still alert and oriented enough to tell me. Most of the time, during the final phase, folks are really sleepy and incoherent. It’s like a very peaceful, not-scary coma. But this lady, man, she’s tough. She’s a retired nurse and a no-nonsense wife and mother and I can’t help but see glimpses of myself in her, down the road.
When I saw her last week, she was laughing and talking and walking around her house – slowly, gingerly, but moving nonetheless. I found a different woman in bed on Monday. She was gray in color and her speech was slurred. But she recognized me immediately and waved me over. “Get your butt in here,” she whispered. “I want to tell you about the colors.” I looked at her husband and he just smiled. I sat down and grabbed her hand, resting my chin on her hospital bed side rail as she began to take me on a journey to a thin place between heaven and earth. Quite honestly, she herself was a thin place, with one foot there and one foot here.
She saw people who died twenty years ago, and they looked happy. She reported that they all had full heads of thick, luscious hair. She saw the people who were actually in the room, too, like me and her family, and she could switch back and forth easily. The colors and sounds were vibrant, she said, peaceful even. She heard a rumbling sound and saw flashes of lightning sporadically. She wasn’t scared. This was the beginning of the end, she said. “I’m dying, right?” I nodded. I asked her if it scared her. She smiled and closed her eyes and shook her head. “I’m good. This is good.”
And then I rubbed her feet with essential oils and she asked me to pray for her, two things I’ve never done with a patient. Tears rolled down our cheeks as she thanked God for me and I for her. Because in that moment, I touched heaven and it touched me back.