George J. Petrie, M.D – Longboat Key, Florida
++Dying to Live++
Her health had started to deteriorate rapidly. At this point in time she was bedridden. All of her caregivers knew that she was dying of a broken heart. Her husband of 40 years had passed away about two months ago and she had merely given up on trying to continue without him.
She had a daughter who lived in Arizona but no one close by to take care of her. Social Services had gotten involved when a neighbor called to express concern.
A Nursing team was assigned, along with caregivers, counselors and people to provide her nutritional needs.
I had been asked if I would go by her home each day after I left my day job, and sit with her until the night Nurse would arrive. Since she refused to communicate, I would simply sit by her bed and read a book. Although she could not be left alone, she would completely ignore the entire team that was providing her care.
During the second week, during one of my daily visits, I was reading a book that was especially interesting. I won’t mention the name of the book but it was a “bestseller” and the theme was based on a wonderful story about a man and his dog. I was so engrossed in this book that I remember wishing that she could read it with me. Perhaps she would even like me to read aloud for her. I decided to experiment and told her that I was enjoying this story so much that I wanted to share it with her. I asked her if she would mind if I read out loud. She never responded but I decided it would be nice to temporarily end her little world of silence. I was certain that she would either fall asleep or (miraculously) tell me to stop.
I started the book over and read several chapters (out loud). She didn’t sleep and I really couldn’t tell if she was actively listening.
On my next visit, the following day, I continued with my plan. I sat by her bed and started reading out loud. At one point I thought she had fallen asleep so I started reading to myself. After a brief moment, she turned her head toward me and said “Please keep reading”.
She had spoken voluntarily for the first time since I met her. When it came time for me to leave I told her that I would be back the next day and we would continue with the story. She looked right at me and said “OK”. I wasn’t sure if I saw a smile on her face but I could see that she was actually enjoying our little reading sessions and was looking forward to them.
We managed to finish the book in a little over a week and before I left I asked her if she would like me to bring another book to read. This time she gave me a genuine smile and said “Oh yes, I would like that very much!” I asked her if she had any particular book in mind but she shook her head and said “It doesn’t matter, just something uplifting like the last one”.
I remember driving home after that visit with an intense feeling of elation. Just the simple act of reading to someone had made a positive change in their life. By the time I got home I had decided that everyone had been treating her physical needs but foregoing the emotional one’s that were raging inside her. Listening to me read allowed her to go to another place in her mind; a place that wasn’t tortured by grief.
A few days later I arrived with several books. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to continue visiting with her every day and wanted to see if I could encourage her to do some reading on her own.
I rang the bell and her caregiver answered. I thought it was a bit unusual that she had an enormous smile on her face. She looked at me and said “Come on in…..we have a big surprise for you!” When I walked into the living room, here was Mrs. Myers fully dressed, her hair fixed nicely, She was smiling and said “I asked them to help me shower and get dressed. I told them that my ‘cardiologist’ was coming to visit!”
I was so pleased to see that she was up but concerned that I may be an interruption if her Doctor was coming for a visit. I asked her if she would like me to come back later after the Doctor left. She slowly stood up from the chair and looked at me and said…..”No..no George. You don’t understand. I tell everyone that you are my ‘cardiologist’ because you helped mend my broken heart! You know they say, ‘Heal the heart and then heal the body! That’s what you did for me!”
I’ve always found it difficult to express emotions around other people but I suddenly found that I couldn’t squeeze back the tears that came to my eyes. She walked over to me very slowly and took my hand and said “Sit down with me, I’m going to read to you. I found a book that my husband liked very much and I want to share it with you.”
We spent the next week together, and during each of my visits she would read to me. I knew that my daily visits would be coming to an end. She had finally found the strength and the will to live.
On my final visit I sat with her in the living room and she said to me :
“George, are you afraid of dying?”
I’ve never been accused of being short of words but I suddenly found myself “stricken”. Thoughts flashed through my mind as I tried to quickly decide what the “right” response would be. Finally, I said to her “Mrs. Myers, I think I am afraid of dying. I have always been brought up to believe in the “hereafter” but I think we all share the same fear of the unknown”. I then asked her if SHE was afraid of dying.
With that same smile on her face she said “Not any more. I’ve had a lot of time to think. I keep remembering when my husband Joe was dying. I begged him not to leave me as he was all I had left.” “The day before he died he told me that he would send an angel to watch over me…..and I think YOU are that angel”. “You’ve accepted me and allowed me to grieve. You haven’t tried to force me to engage in conversation but I always felt that you were a special person and a special part of the transition I was going through. “Am I afraid of dying….no…..I’ve just always been afraid to die alone and you have been here every day to ensure that someone would always be here. You are that angel! You helped me learn to open my arms and accept the things that life still has to offer me.”
I still went by to see her from time to time. She would always have some freshly home baked goods in a small Tupperware container for me to take with me. She was baking cookies, brownies, cakes, pies and anything else she had in her cookbook and taking them to the Senior Center for others to enjoy. She had new friends and had become the person she was supposed to be.
Every Christmas, for the following four years I would receive a Christmas card from her. It was always addressed to “My Angel”. I often wondered what the postman thought!
I was sitting at work one day when the office called to inform me of her passing. Of course I was saddened by the news but I knew that she had given me the greatest gift of all…… I’m not afraid of dying anymore.
She made me believe that there is always someone watching over us. She made me believe that whatever the “hereafter” is, there will be people like her who will recognize me for putting aside my own selfish needs to reach out and comfort someone else. It is as though she showed me that there is such a thing as absolution for some of the things I’ve done in my life, that I am less than proud of. She showed me how to give a gift of the heart!