I sat next to my sister’s cancer-ridden body, during a long week of hospice in April 2014 in Nashville. I held her gorgeous hands, the ones I’d always wished I had inherited, and the only part of her body that still looked like her. Memories flooded back to precious days still ingrained in my mind. The days when I was a little girl, playing with her rings to distract myself from the sermon at church, delighting in my sister’s very presence.
I still can’t believe it ended, just like that.
The concept of hospice seemed impossible when she first got sick three years ago. What started as stage one intensified to stage two pancreatic cancer, complex gastrointestinal surgery, six months of chemotherapy, temporary remission, relapse, unstoppable weight loss, and eventually integrative care and intravenous nutrition therapy. Nothing worked, and we found ourselves by her hospice bedside. She walked herself into the hospice facility and lived for two weeks before God answered our prayers for healing by wrapping her in His arms and bringing her home to be with Him.
Waiting For The Unknown Of Hospice
I remember constantly thinking, “Am I waiting for my sister to die, or for a miracle for her to get well? No, not in Heaven, but on earth as it is in Heaven?” Once we realized she was dying, it was a slow, hourly process of waiting for the inevitable, though it was only a day or so before she passed.
It’s so hard to watch someone lose their dignity. It was almost more than I could bear when Rhonda finally resigned herself to a pair of Depends. Barely lucid, she knew it was too much work to go to the bathroom. But that marked a whole new chapter—a chapter of helplessness.
That new helpless was so uncharacteristic of her, and yet it gave us a sense of belonging. We looked for anything and everything to make her more comfortable—smoothing lip balm on her dry lips, dabbing her mouth with water when she could hardly swallow. Feeling useful helped us cope in a big way, pulling us out of our existential haze and giving us occupation.
One evening, just a day or so before she died, we prayed for a miracle. We prayed that my sister would swing her legs over the side of the hospice bed, “pick up her mat and walk.” For food to stay in her stomach. For her body to somehow begin growing stronger. And then we prayed for peace because we had no idea what God was going to do. We prayed with words we didn’t know we had, with a yearning and longing we’d never experienced. Please preserve her life. YOU can do it. ONLY You.
As we sat in hospice, expectant, somewhat hopeful, but losing steam, I would repeat, “Rhonda, I love you.” She was responding less and less to our questions, but often her eyes would suddenly come into focus and she’d look at me and gently mouth or breathe out, “I love you.” It seemed she was the most attentive to those three words, like she knew how important it was to say them before she couldn’t anymore.
She also told my husband to take care of me. And asked that I never leave her kids. And told me I had a cute butt. So very Rhonda.
I honestly, truly, really believe God’s purpose is bigger than my finite brain, but I remember consciously thinking (and still think), “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, GOD?” Better question: “WHY THE HELL ARE YOU NOT DOING?” I want to know why more people don’t get to learn from her, sit with her, hear her kind and wise words, let her love on them and them on her. No one gets to know how amazing she was, and what if she’s a distant memory to her babies?
What happens after the “just get through this day and millions of phone calls” is over? Grief is strange and unpredictable. Sometimes it looks like crying in the middle of the street on a run with no explanation. Sometimes it looks like breaking down because a Christian song comes on the radio—Rhonda’s ring tone. Or feeling like a total creep in her house and looking through all of her pictures and books and journals and clothes, searching for any glimpse or scent of her previous presence. Grief doesn’t always look sad, but there is often a feeling of shock: how can a person with so much significance not be here? It’s just so weird. My senses still experience her, but she is not here. That is tangibly wrong and confusing.
I want to call her. Ironically, I want her wisdom to get through the sadness of being without her. I want to go to her with my fears that I too will get sick with cancer and die. The pain in my side—cancer. That cough I’m developing—definitely not a common cold. It’s lung cancer. I Web-MD-ed it.
And my ever-present thought is: I can’t quite seem to hurt enough. I can’t cry enough tears to take away the hurt her kids still feel.
In the midst of that grief and anger and fear, there’s another voice that’s more calm and loving. This voice speaks truth from deep within my soul where head knowledge has conjured up belief for times such as these. “You don’t get it, and it’s okay. Even though you don’t understand why her kids are going to miss their mom forever, you don’t have to understand. Because I’m bigger, and because there is still eternity.”
It doesn’t make me less angry, but it makes me severely dependent on Someone so much bigger. Someone who wept over death and was angry about death and then eventually encountered death.
Grief will keep happening. Grief happens all over again when I listen to my sister’s old voicemails. When I hear other stories about death and pain. When I go to her house – and see her marks all over it and hear her voice echoing in the walls.
But that same voice beckons me come and rest, and acknowledge the Giver and Take Away-er. He tells me to STOP.
No, not to suck it up and pray more, but just to stop. Moment by moment, just do the now. Do now.
Beauty On the Other Side of Hospice
Watching someone die opens the door to ask, “Where did this come from?” and the reaction, “This is not normal or okay.” Ultimately it leads to the plea, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
It doesn’t make an ounce of sense. But, thank God for beauty in the pain, for laughter and tears, for hugs and puppy dog kisses. For hymns and poetry. For these really hard things that make beauty even sweeter and Jesus even more beautiful. For hospice. For the opportunity to encounter Jesus in a totally new way just by watching my sister encounter Jesus – both spiritually, and then, literally. For the other sister I still have and can make memories with and miss our big sister with. For these flavors of eternity tasted briefly during that devastatingly hard week in hospice—eternity where one day I will, and I can hardly wait, hold her sweet hand again.
“Her Absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”-C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”