“The Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.”
—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer
When the hospice nurse and social worker come to my parent’s home the first time, they are not what my sisters and I expect. Perhaps I was expecting a cliché: calm and restful sorts, hired because of their ability to show quiet dignity to patients who are dying. Instead, they are chatty and gregarious. Though their demeanor is initially surprising, there is a certain charm and assurance to their lack of worry about being so close to death; surely they also need a way to cope with the heavy burden of their job.
They are kind and highly knowledgeable, but they rush my mom through the heavy information about signing Do Not Resuscitate at Home forms, the different kinds of pain management options, and noticing the stages before death.
The nurse enthusiastically declares that she used to be afraid of morphine but she loves it now because of the relief it offers to suffering patients. I suppose it could seem jarring to someone newly acquainted with hospice care, but I think it’s necessary for my mom to hear. She’s been afraid of giving my father too much pain medication, afraid that she’ll be the one to kill him, not the cancer.
My mom has needed help since my dad came home from the hospital a week ago, a feeding tube inserted into his stomach, since the cancer has spread up his esophagus and he can no longer swallow. In the three weeks I spend with them in Texas, the sound of a mini vacuum becomes familiar throughout the house, suctioning out the normal saliva and mucus from his throat since he can no longer get rid of it by the swallowing most of us take for granted.
My mom puts her head down at some point in the three-hour hospice meeting, covering her face with both hands, running them over her hair and tossing her hair about as if that will shake out the grief for a moment so she can think. I can see that she’s becoming more and more overwhelmed by the information and emotional weight of deciding to place my dad on hospice.
Meanwhile, a thousand miles away, where my husband has been caring for our eldest children so I can be here for my mom, a man named Rich—who has been the heart of our small intentional community for thirty years—has also been placed on hospice.
His wife Sarah, a career nurse, is giving him morphine under the tongue. While my dad can’t swallow anymore because of the cancer that is creeping up his throat, it is Rich’s diseased lungs that will fill with fluid until he can’t breathe any longer.
Later, Sarah and I will swap morphine and hospice stories, but now the two wives in their sixties wake and sleep fitfully to the tune of grief and dying.
A few days before I return home, I get the message that Rich has died. His death is a big blow to the community, one that has lost two other elderly members in a few months. Though I long to be with my husband and kids, I am dreading the return. The day after I return home, my husband will lead Rich’s funeral.
I feel as though I’m traveling from grief to grief, from my father on hospice to a community of loss, a community that seems to be fraying and hasn’t yet realized it needs help.
I’ve never lost a father before so I don’t know what his death will be like, but right now it seems as though dying is a harsher master than death. Dying refuses to follow a set pattern, it unearths personal weaknesses, unmet needs, and emotional griefs beyond the seemingly simple loss of a loved one. Dying complicates death, not because we always want death to come but because dying is filled with the looming shadow of dread.
I dread the death of my father. But I also dread his prolonged suffering. I cannot know what he dreads and that is part of the pain. He won’t tell me.
And my small community that lingers on in triage, I dread to watch it flounder, to watch it waste away to a shell as thin as my father’s frame.
When the hospice nurse returns from examining my father in his bedroom, even though I don’t know her, she seems uncharacteristically exasperated.
“You’ve been giving him enough for a hangnail,” says the nurse to my mother. “You can give him a lot more than that.”
The dread is a wave that fills and empties as it wills. But there is hope for my mom, for my dad, in that little offering from the nurse, an instruction for pain relief that pushes the wave away, at least for a brief respite.
What we all express, what we all want is an end to suffering. Even if it’s at the bottom of a vial of morphine, at the end of dying, at the last breath of a community.
But I wonder too: is there an offering in the dread itself, in the dark shape that follows as close as a shadow? If Thomas Merton is to be believed, the pit that is dug by dread is a prerequisite for the healing of God. Maybe it’s naiveté that makes me hope that this season of dread will bring something besides death.
But by then, will we all be too exhausted to sing Alleluia in the desert? Or does God mind that sometimes, the song of praise is as quiet as a puff of sand in the wind?
Christiana N. Peterson has published pieces on death, fairytales, and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella. She has a forthcoming book about community life and the Christian mystics with Herald Press. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.
Above image by Barbara W., used with permission under a Creative Commons License.