At 5:00 in the morning my sister jolted me awake with a text message reading “R U in my room?” The day before she had told three doctors and two nurses she would not go into the hospice, and only stayed in the hospital because I promised to bring her home in the morning.
My wife and I drove to the hospital while it was still dark. The senior nurse, who’d taken care of her on her five previous times on the cancer floor, started crying (but caught herself) when she gave us the discharge instructions. “No one like that’s ever left,” she said. “They always stay.”
Many of the nurses came to care for my sister far beyond their professional concern. After she put Karen into our car, the senior nurse turned around and gave me a long, hard hug, and spun around to walk back into the hospital, but not before I saw the tears in her eyes.
Karen (two years younger and my only sibling) had been in her new home a month when in mid-March the doctor in the emergency room told her she was dying of late stage four cancer. It had already spread to her lymph nodes and the bone of her skull and spine. At first the oncologist thought she might live for a year or two or even longer, especially when the first treatment worked surprisingly, amazingly, well. She died less than six months later.
No Lessons, or Maybe One
I don’t have a lesson to offer. Except maybe this: That words rarely comfort or heal, but love always helps. As I stayed with my sister, knowing she would die in hours or days, I was not in the mood for theology or piety. I did want some signs that God stays with us.
After watching Karen all day, and dealing with visitors coming to say goodbye to her, I had to get out of the house. After everyone left about 4:00 I went to get groceries while Hope sat with her. They’d been friends about thirty-five years. I got back from the store about an hour later and as I took something to the back of the house looked into Karen’s room.
She was sitting on the side of the bed, leaning forward, resting her left elbow on the bedside table and her right hand on her lap. She was looking at Hope. Hope was sitting in a straight-backed chair facing her, her hands in her lap, their knees maybe an inch apart. She was leaning forward and looking at Karen. Neither spoke. They just sat there, their heads maybe a foot apart, just looking at each other. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
David Mills is the editor of Hour of Our Death. “She Would Die in Hours or Days” is a shorter version of his Aleteia column,”My sister died, and I have no lessons but that God stays with us.”