My grandpa (Papa) died eight years ago at the end of October. I was thankfully given the chance to fly across the country with mom to be there as he died. I am not sure how much of my time there at the end he was really present for-he was mostly non-communicative by the time we got there-but I will never forget that time. I hadn’t lived near my grandparents since I was little, and really only got to see them every couple of years. However, what one can miss out on by way of distance, can be made up for in part by intensity of time spent together. Being with someone as they die is an intimate experience. I remember watching Papa, just sitting with him, and telling him about myself. Because he couldn’t respond, I think I probably shared with him more deeply than I would have been comfortable with if he had interacted with what I was saying. I told him that I was so thankful for the peaceful legacy he was leaving behind. The family unity, the desire to know and follow God, the love for the Blue Jays. I remember being struck by the fact that you can feel so prepared for someone to finally pass after that slow descent towards death, and the moment they do you realize just how little you can actually do to prepare for it.

Papa taught me how to BBQ, he left me with a love of cheese, and music (even though we had fairly different tastes) and he was very funny and gentle and kind. He was a pastor at some very large churches and some small churches and I know he visited plenty of hospital rooms, lots of grieving families, and helped plenty of people live through their own stories of hardship. I know he was a witness to plenty of what goes on in our world, both the pleasant and the sorrowful. If it hadn’t have been him in that hospital bed, he would have been beside it, singing a hymn or comforting the family (or more likely cracking a well-timed joke). He wasn’t perfect, but he was a great man.

I started my nursing program about two months after he died with this personal experience of palliative care fresh in my mind. Being with Papa at the end shaped me personally and professionally in profound ways. Experiences like this truly do make people better or bitter. I believe that entering health care so soon after his death has given me a keen awareness of how my actions and words effect not only the patients I care for, but also the families that are witness to the suffering of their loved one. Experiencing the terminal nature of palliative care, having the knowledge that you can’t fix it, has also prepared me for a life and career of knowing that whether it is working psych, or detox, or dealing with people on a personal level, that I really can’t fix much. I can support, encourage, educate and challenge, but not fix. The ability to fix others emotionally or spiritually really isn’t a power that any of us have.

There was this old analog clock in his hospital room that was faltering. It would tick along alright for a bit and then swing its arms wildly as gravity overpowered it, then falter as it rounded 6 and struggle slowly towards 12. I wrote this poem on the plane on my way home.

The Spastic Clock

The spastic clock
Tic-tic, tic -tock
A broken whisper,
A shallow cough,
The hands unsteady
Around the face
In a wearily uneven pace
They struggle up
And then fall down
Uneasily they travel round
Sometimes they’re drowned
by hissing air
Then tock you’re conscious
That they’re there
The rise and fall
of thin white sheets
Are measured by the labored beats
Tic-tic, tock-tic
The hands will stick
And there remain
Like charcoaled wicks
The flame run cool
Smoke dissipated
The silence we anticipated
The motion stops
And time stands still.