Two months ago I started spending my Thursday afternoons at a nearby nursing home. I visit a woman named Millie who will probably not live much into next year. Since we spend most of our time in the common room, I end up interacting with staff members and other residents as well, and as Millie rarely speaks in more than short, nonsensical phrases and questions, I spend much of the time observing the room at large.
The nursing home is a sad place. Residents generally have some degree of dementia or some other mental disability. Millie often cries, seemingly out of the blue. She buries her wrinkled, mournful face in her cupped, knotty hands. Her shoulders shake. I wish I could know what specifically makes her sad, but asking questions doesn’t get me far. This week I’m going to take her some photos of my puppy. Maybe they’ll make her feel happy, at least for a time.
The nursing home can also be a warm and even comical place. The staff is affectionate with the residents, and though the residents can’t often articulate reciprocal pleasure, I see it in their faces. I observe the friendships Millie has with other women residents, like Helen. They smile at each other from across the table, wave when one is being wheeled past the other, converse incoherently in kind tones. Millie compliments Helen on her cute stuffed duckie (which really exists, and is cute). And I had to laugh last week when I heard one woman snarl, “Don’t you kick me again! Don’t you kick me!” after Helen had actually and purposefully nailed this other woman in the shin. It’s not every day I witness two 90something-year-old women in a physical fight.
I’ve never before spent regular time in a place of such overt transience. At the nursing home, people are coming to their end, mentally and physically, and everybody knows it. I just learned that Art, a dear, old British resident whom I loved to greet with a firm hand hold, died last week. His hands are cold and stiff now. He’s gone from us.
For some reason there’s recently been a series of deaths at my mom’s church, most of which have happened swiftly or unexpectedly. It seems like every time we talk on the phone, my mom leads with, “Have I told you about [fill in the blank] yet?”
“No . . .”
“She was diagnosed with cancer six weeks ago, and yesterday I played the piano at her funeral.”
Her accounts always end like this: “We just don’t know. We don’t know when the end will come, honey.”
I confess I’ve become desensitized to my mom’s accounts. I feel I need to pull myself out from under the weight of her pronouncements. In fact, I need to stop imagining what all these remnant family members are feeling at the loss of their loved ones. I can get weighed down and start to elevate death to an improper place, as if death is the final thing, the guillotine, the black-out, that will surely catch us off-guard and likely too soon.
I’m thankful to be spending regular time at a nursing home, where death is an understood, a given. The residents live with its inevitability every day, every hour. While each death in the nursing home is mourned, death is not given undue power. That’s a good picture for me as someone who tends to invest a lot of fear in the prospect of dying or losing someone I love most.
Of course my mom’s right. We don’t know when death will come to us. It really could be tomorrow, or tonight even. And it will be really difficult for those left here to mourn, and of course, we all need to be prepared spiritually for our own deaths.
Death brings very real pain, and we need and will need healing from the great losses we’ll inevitably experience at death’s hand. But there’s this, too, that truly changes things: “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). We—I—cannot forget the Resurrection of Christ. Death has nowhere close to the final word. It is a temporary setback—a hard setback—but that is all.
O death, where is your sting?