Friday, April 27, 2007

A Birthday Story

I recently paid a visit to an elderly woman for whom I served as a visiting nurse some years ago. We are still friendly and I check in on her from time to time.

Sitting on the side of her bed, I learned that her 74th birthday was only days away. I wished her well and I was somewhat surprised by her response.

"I hope that this will be my final birthday."

"Your final birthday?" I placed my hand on hers.

"Yes. I hope Jesus will take me. I'm ready to go. It's been a hard life." She crossed herself and fingered her rosary that never leaves her thin and fragile neck.

Of course, I could have responded like many people would, especially those for whom death is a failure, a sign of weakness. But instead I chose to meet her where she was.

"If that's what you truly want, I'll hope that for you, as well. But I would really miss you."

She grabbed my hand and pulled me close to her. Then we sat in silence, looking at the shrine in her room: the Virgin Mary, several crucifixes, a incongruous plastic dog and toy car, and other Catholic items of worship and devotion.

"Do you feel you've had a good life?" I asked.

"No," she replied. "It has been a life of misery, suffering, and hard work. Now, I'm too sick to even enjoy my years of rest." She folded her hands in her lap in resignation.

"Don't you enjoy your children and grandchildren?"

"Not really,"she replied. "I'm just in too much pain. I'm ready to go. I've almost died a few times but He always sends me back. I've had enough."

We hug goodbye. I kiss her on the cheek and playfully touch the end of her nose with my index finger. She smiles and girlishly wrinkles her nose and eyes. I note to myself that she will turn 74 this week, the same age as my vibrant and healthy mother. Oh, the ravages of poverty and deprivation on the human body and spirit!

Getting into my car and returning to the clinic, I'm glad that I didn't try to talk her out of her feelings or deny her desire to "finish up" and move on. At her age, after all she has been through, she deserves to welcome death if she so desires. Is it geriatric depression? Likely so. Is it treatable with antidepressants? Possibly. Should she be treated? It is debatable on many levels, and she would probably decline treatment anyway. A tough sell, at best.

So, happy birthday to my little friend, even as she hopes for an end to the succession of the years. Perhaps her wish will come true, or perhaps her Jesus has other plans. At any rate, when she finally gets to meet her maker, I'll rejoice for her and send her blessings on that joyous journey home. Until then, may her days be brightened by the small things which can mean so much: a smile, a kind word, a caring touch, a shoulder upon which to rest her weary head.
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