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When entering her room, I always felt that it was too small. Mrs. Jones was obese, fat, huge... but I believe that it was more her personality that didn't fit in the small hospital room.
The only thing she could still do, was lie down. With the blanket half over her flowery nightgown, she was an immobile mountain on the low white bed. But even when she was sleeping or half-conscious, her presence filled the whole room.
It was always with respect that I approached her. "Excuse me, Mrs. Jones," I said this morning when I entered her room, "I'd like to measure your blood pressure."
She didn't hear me. She was asleep. I was glad to see that; it was very difficult for her to fall asleep with the intense pain she always had. She didn't want painkillers.
"No, I will not be drugged." she said in her usual resolute way as I tried for the first time to give her a mild sedative. It was half past three at night, and she was still awake. "I don't have much time left in this life -I want to be as conscious as possible."
Normally we don't think it is good when patients have unnecessary pain. With Mrs. Jones however, all personnel respected her wishes unconditionally. We even started thinking about alternatives like hot milk or herb tea to help her sleep.
"Ah," Mrs. Jones said softly when I came with hot milk one night. She didn't sound so resolute as usual. "My father used to come like this every night, when I was a child." She looked at the ceiling and seemed to feel a bit embarrassed. Hesitantly she continued: "When I had finished it, he... he always held my hand until I slept."
She closed her eyes for a moment and then her normal resoluteness was back. "But no. Thank you. Nowadays milk gives me problems in the night."
Only later Jennifer, one of the nurses, sifted from her that drinking milk at the end of the day sometimes made her wet her bed.
"But we can easily do something about that." the girl said. "A catheter, or absorbing underwear..."
"Thank you, my child, but I don't want that you give yourself extra trouble for me."
Mrs. Jones never called for a nurse. She couldn't leave her bed to come to us, and instead of ringing her bell she calmly waited until we came to her room for something else. She was the quietest patient we had. Others were not as sick but gave us much more work.
Moreover, it was nice to be with her. She was incredibly positive, interested in us; she never complained. Between two attacks of tremendous pain she would ask about our lives, how we were and what happened in the rest of the world, what our plans for the future were, about the health of our children or parents -she was interested in everything.
Soon she knew more about us than we knew about her. We actually only knew that she had Kahler's disease in a terminal phase, that she had lost her father when she was still young and that she had been the eldest child in a big family. She had no husband anymore and we supposed that she didn't have relatives or friends living nearby, because visitors she got rarely.
What we knew best about her, was that we appreciated her highly. She wasn't a patient; she was our guest.
However, being with her was also difficult. We admired her, we let her mother us -but at the same time I always felt a bit uneasy with her. Did I feel that she demanded too much of herself? Or did I simply feel a bit guilty because I was not like her?
We kept trying to make her burden lighter as much as we could. We came to her for a chat more often than to others, we gave her a little extra of the food that we knew she liked, we dropped in extra often with a cup of tea or coffee.
As soon as she saw that we were doing special things for her, she stopped it.
"Dear," she said sternly to everyone who still tried to do it, "I'm not a pitiful case. Treat me like everybody else. If I could, I would do without any help at all."
It was seldom that I could make her talk about herself. Once she told me that she had been the head of a boarding school for children from poor families. I could see her easily in that role. Big, strict, all-controlling and all-deciding in the school -but with much love for the children. The children had been the centre of her world, I was sure, not she.
After she had been in the hospital for two weeks, her condition deteriorated quickly. She was only conscious because she had so much pain. Every movement sent shockwaves through her nerves and lying still didn't help much either. But she stubbornly went on showing interest in us and the rest of the world.
When I showed my admiration for her attitude, she said, "Listen, my child" -she always said "child" to me, even though she knew very well that I was thirty-two- "Listen, my child, I can also choose to just feel miserable. What do you think I feel better with?"
My idea was that she simply couldn't help being interested in others. It was deeply rooted in her character; it was the basis of her being. "If you really don't want to go to the next patient," she often said when we were dawdling or doing unnecessary things in her room, "then tell me about Kosovo and all that senseless fighting down there. Has anybody in the rest of the world already found a solution?"
We told her what we knew and tried not to see how Mrs. Jones grimaced with pain and sometimes pressed her face into her pillow not to make any sound. Sweat often dripped from her forehead. Sometimes I tried to wipe it away but always she pulled the handkerchief out of my hand and said, almost sharply, "I can still do that myself."
And I pretended not to see how incredibly difficult these simple movements were for her.
Only once I heard that she had lost her temper. One afternoon Carla, one of our most experienced and stable nurses, left Mrs. Jones' room quite upset. "She sent me away," the nurse said and her hand holding the menu-list trembled. "I encouraged her to select the nicest menu for tomorrow and she said crossly: "How can I bother about such things if half of the world is hungry?!"
At the end of the third week I arrived in the ward for the nightshift and immediately I felt that something unusual was going to happen.
"Any news?" I asked Jennifer, the colleague whom I was going to relieve.
"No, everything was quiet this evening." she answered.
After I had put on my uniform I hesitated at the coffee machine. Breaking with habit, I skipped the coffee and started my rounds right away.
I found Mrs. Jones in an unusual condition. "How's the pain?" I asked. She grimaced. "Bad." she said, instead of the customary "Oh, well, my child, it comes and it goes."
I looked at her, startled. "Then you'll not get any sleep at all, this night." I said as I unnecessarily rearranged her blanket and pillow a bit.
"I think you're right." she said. "We'll have the nightshift together."
I looked at her unhappily. "I really would like to give you a light painkiller..." I began. She didn't let me finish.
"Your first night on the nightshift, isn't it?" she asked. She kept track of these things faultlessly. I nodded slowly, reluctant to give in about the painkiller.
"The first night is the most difficult one, I suppose." she continued.
"It takes some adjusting to," I admitted. "I never look forward to it. But I would be happy if you took a light..."
"Make sure you stay awake, eh?" Mrs. Jones said pretending to admonish me. I sighed inaudibly and did my best to adopt her mood. "I'll stay awake." I promised. "If we have the nightshift together I cannot leave you alone, can I?"
I saw how a smile removed her painful grimace for a moment.
"I'll bring you something to drink for the night. How about fennel-tea?"
She didn't answer immediately. Her eyes wandered over the ceiling. Sweat was dripping from her forehead. Then suddenly, her face relaxed somewhat.
"A glass of hot milk, please." she said softly. For a short moment her eyes sought mine. She had a new look in them.
I was transfixed. I didn't know whether I should be happy or not.
"A glass of hot milk..." I repeated. I tried to sound more cheerful. "Coming in a moment!"
Uncertain I hurried out of the room.
When I returned with the milk her eyes were serene. "Can you help me to sit up?" she asked. Something in her face had changed. It was not only the relaxation.
I helped her to sit up, something she normally only allowed me to do with great reluctance, and I felt a deep emotion.
"That feels good," she said with satisfaction when she was sitting comfortably. She tried to wipe the sweat from her forehead. I took a handkerchief and knew she wouldn't object. When I dabbed her face, she closed her eyes.
"That feels good." she said again and leaned back against her pillow.
After a few sips of the milk she sighed deeply, yielding to total relaxation.
I kept looking at her face and suddenly I realised what I saw. Through all the wrinkles and spots and disfigurements shone the face of a young girl, five, six years old maybe.
All my thoughts seemed to come to a standstill and a miraculous silence spread in me. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
Mrs. Jones had closed her eyes again. Without looking she sought my hand and held it. It felt as if she didn't give, for a change. She was open to receive. Her face lit up in a smile that slowly faded into a state of deep relaxation.
"G'night." she said sleepily and I felt her hand loosen the grip on mine. One moment later her breathing indicated that she had fallen into a quiet sleep.
When I made my last round, early the next morning, I knew already what I would find. And I felt at peace with it.
Around five o'clock, Mrs. Jones had passed away in her sleep.
I looked at her face and felt warmth spreading in me. She had allowed the child in her to stay until the end.
Copyright 1999 by Joost Boekhoven
My spiritual novel Gem's Story: A shy girl and a perfect monk
together search for God. First they find each other, then themselves, then...
Articles about living closer to God and other spiritual topics: www.gemstories.com/splash.html
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