I had been a Catholic less than six months; in fact, Dad would die six months to the day following my reception into the Church. He had been admitted to a hospice in Connecticut at the end of August, on the day following his 58th wedding anniversary. Mom and each of us six kids and several of the eleven grandkids were visiting him in shifts. September was moving toward the first day of autumn.
As anyone with any experience of hospice care knows, these can be astonishing places—featuring moments of grace in an atmosphere of divine serenity. In this facility, with twelve private bedrooms divided between two quiet wings off a central reception area, the patients seemed to be mostly like Dad: white and upper-income. Virtually all of the care-givers were black, many from Haiti or Jamaica. And they were uniformly not just consummate professionals but, at least through my emotional lens, saints.
During Dad’s final ten days, I spent a lot of time at the hospice, although I would not be with him when he died. Dad waited, as the dying are known to do, until each of his six children had paid one final visit, then he passed from this earth in the company of my mother and my daughter Martha. But I was there for most of the final act, as I say, even if I didn’t see the curtain come down. And I took the late shift several times, sleeping in a La-Z-Boy recliner by his bedside on four out of his last seven nights.
I didn’t sleep that well fully clothed in a La-Z-Boy, and several times each night I would wander out to the central reception area and chat with members of the night shift who happened to be around. That’s how I met Jerome. Jerome is from Haiti, which means his name is pronounced with a French accent: zhay-ROM. Jerome is a male nurse in his 30s, who had been hired to give private care to a man in the opposite wing. Jerome is about 6’4″ (or so he seems to me now in memory) and gifted with a beaming presence that begins in beautiful eyes and a wide smile but then seems to radiate from his entire self. To me, Jerome was like the stranger who becomes your friend in an overcrowded lifeboat out of sight of land. There were others in the boat (others on the day and night shifts whom I got to know by name), but Jerome was my sudden friend and the strong fellow I would have hung on to if the lifeboat had capsized.
One night about 1 a.m. I was sitting by Dad’s side with my back to the door of his room. Dad slept most of the time now. He had not yet entered the breathing pattern known as Cheyne-Stokes, a frighteningly machine-like pattern of fast breathing followed, at intervals, by nothing at all. The periods of nothing can last up to two minutes, so that every once in a while you say to yourself, Is this it? Is Dad gone? Then the machine starts up again. Dad began breathing this way early on a Saturday morning and we all thought he was near the end. Not only was he not near the end (he lived three more days) but that day at noon, he suddenly “woke up,” and the few of us gathered had one last chance to gaze at and return that wondrous Dad smile and even exchange a few words with him.
That night at 1 a.m., in the week before that Saturday, I was sitting with my back to the door, reading aloud from the Liturgy of the Hours while Dad slept. He didn’t respond to the psalms and prayers and readings of the night office. He only breathed without moving. I had no indication at all that he was even hearing me, although I had heard enough stories of even the deeply comatose “hearing” and “responding to” stimuli that I read away in a confident voice strong enough for him to hear clearly.
I became aware that someone had entered the room. The narrow vertical trapezoid of light from the door behind me widened considerably and a shadow cast itself on Dad in the bed and on the wall behind him. I heard soft footsteps as I continued to read, and as I came to the end of the psalm, I realized that Jerome was there, walking around my right side to the far side of the bed. Dad seemed to notice nothing.
I looked up at Jerome and he smiled his radiant smile back at me. Standing by Dad’s side now, he gently rubbed Dad’s forearm with his right palm, back and forth just a couple of times. “How are you, David?” Jerome asked in a pleasantly accented baritone. And as though Dad had been awake the whole time and as though Dad knew Jerome—they had never met until this moment—Dad looked up at Jerome with that unforgettable, indelible Dad smile and just twinkled his eyes for a moment. I told Dad, “This is my friend Jerome, Dad, and he has come to say hi.” Dad twinkled his eyes again at Jerome, nodded once, and closed his eyes again, settling back into sleep. Jerome smiled at me and walked silently out, while I got a grip on my emotions, then resumed reading.
I’m not sure whether I ever saw Jerome again after that. I have often thought I’d like to look him up, but you never know with angels: Are they listed in the phone book?
Note 1: I was moved to write this post after reading Julie’s lovely piece on her own father’s death in Happy Catholic. It’s inspiring and definitely worth reading.
Note 2: I wrote about Dad’s encounter with another hospice worker in this post.