The call suggested the end might be drawing near, but I did not know the patient well enough to judge on first glance. The emptiness of the nursing home room surprised me, since her family had surrounded her in the hospital, and a visit from the PT department seemed both odd and normalizing.
Then I saw the fear in her eyes.
I pulled a chair up next to the bed. Cancer has been her companion for nine years, beginning with the breasts now long gone. In the bed she appears childlike, in fleece pajama pants. She still wears a wig, a cap of grey hair trying to convince someone all is well. One moment she is with me, another not.
Her husband is my church member, but she is Roman Catholic. I wonder if anyone has called the priest? I consider asking her, as we talk about the breeze from the open window, and I close it for her, and hold up a cup as she sips water through a straw. I remember her new great-grandchild, born in the same hospital from which she has been released, and ask, "Have you seen the new baby?'
Her face shines for a moment. "Yes," she says, "and held him!" She remembers her own son, the baby's grandson, also premature, so many years ago, and she asks what year I was born.
But then I see the fear again, and so I ask, "Has your priest been here to see you?"
"No," she says, shaking her head ever so slightly.
"Would you like me to call and let him know that you are here?"
"I would be glad to."
We pray together. I am not sure how near the end may be. I'm not sure what I pray for–usually I remember, usually I could recall the next day–but I do remember how grateful she looked, and then how tired.
Back at the office, I call the Catholic parish and reach a very friendly secretary. She asks if it is an emergency, because tomorrow is father's day off?
I go home wondering.
The morning brings a call from her husband to tell me she died, and he tells me the priest came. They weren't sure how he knew. They never thought of calling him.
They did not want to call for the anointing, for the Sacrament of the Sick, because they understand them to be Last Rites, the end of the story.
She needed that end, I do believe it, a mark of punctuation on the experience of dying that lasted so many years, a promise of passage from this world to the next, a release form, a form of release more powerful than her fear of what lay beyond the little room.