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I Want to...
A new volunteer with No One Dies Alone shares her experience.
Illustration by Joanna Szachowska
*The patient’s name and some details have been changed to protect her privacy.
Touching strangers isn’t my thing. I’m sensitive about personal space. But the minute I encounter Linda, I feel close to her. I want to reach out.
Her hands—the usual point of contact for new acquaintances—hide under a sheet in a tangle of tubes leading to machines that burble and whoosh. Quashing a tendency toward squeamishness, I introduce myself. “If it’s OK with you,” I say, “I’d like to sit and keep you company for a while.”
My palm alights on the crown of her head; a butterfly on a petal. The desire to let her know I’m here for her is tempered by wanting to not agitate a body that is shutting down in all ways—except, it seems, for a stubborn ability to feel pain.
I monitor each inhale, amazed at Linda’s will to take another breath. Her wide-open eyes find my face. She blinks, seemingly awake. But aware? Her nurse—protective of Linda and grateful for a presence that relieves pressure on her to linger when so many other tasks await—mentioned myriad illnesses, a lengthy hospitalization.
Mercifully, death seems near. But dying can be long, hard work and the end unpredictable. Maybe it will come while I sit here. Maybe when I go home…
My fingertips find a braid in her nest of hair. I smooth stray strands that glint of copper—not silver, like I had expected. Linda, evidently, is much younger than me. Three little faces smile from across the room; a frame containing photos of ginger-haired kids is the only personal accessory in sight, a lone clue to Linda’s life.
All I really know about her is that she’s dying. Alone. Which is why I’m here.
As a new volunteer for The Johns Hopkins Hospital with No One Dies Alone (NODA), my role is to simply be with the Lindas of this world as they exit from this world without family or friends at their side.
I was finishing my workweek in Fell’s Point when the NODA program sent an email alert about a new patient accepting vigils. I was nervous when I arrived. Then I got too busy being: being not busy, being intent, being fully present with Linda.
Her cheeks are caverns. Her jaws, eye sockets and clavicles jut through taut, sallow skin. This is how my mother looked 35 years ago, when she was dying of cancer; when I was too young and very afraid.
A half hour passes. I break the silence to let Linda know that summer storm clouds are gathering outside the big window beyond her kids’ pictures, which she can’t turn her head to see.
Another hour flies by. Birds huddle on a ledge across the street—a street that’s jammed with the traffic of a Friday night preceding a summer weekend. From the window, I can almost see the brick row house where, if I wasn’t here, I’d be helping my daughter move into her first home, with a mortgage and a refrigerator needing repair.
I don’t talk to Linda about how these parallel goings-on seem related: my daughter leaving her childhood home, and Linda exiting her corporeal home. Or about how I believe we all are interconnected: Linda, me, her kids, my daughter, my mother…
I murmur a prayer for Linda and ask her to please say one for me when she can. I trace the furrow in her brow and suggest it’s time that she rests now.A hazy lullaby that I sang long ago while rocking my babies bubbles up from somewhere deep, only its refrain intact: “I will always be there… I will always be there.”