With every exhale I can hear the rattle in his chest. It sounds like oatmeal bubbling on the stove. Thick and gloppy is how I picture it. My poor little Buddy has been sick for over a month. Feverish, chilled, and in pain my snuggle buddy has grown downright clingy. He wants to be sat with, held, and bundled up at all times.
Beyond keeping him somewhat comfortable the challenge is not freaking out. When the vet mentioned the underlying cause might be a tumor I went from optimistic to heartbroken in a single breath. The idea there might not be a fix overwhelmed me.
Tucking my furry friend in his blankets the other morning brought to mind all the times this year I did the same for my friend Gloria. As she grew frailer the simplest things like covering herself in bed became near impossible.
“Honey, can you cover my feet,” she would say.
I would swaddle her feet then find another blanket for good measure.
When she couldn’t verbalize what she needed, I started to recognize her cues and began to instinctively respond. In the moment this felt good, like I’d improved the situation. My visits with her grew harder though when warm blankets, head rubs, or prayer didn’t seem to accomplish anything. That left me just sitting by her bedside. Of course, I prayed during these times but often I just sat looking at Glo while she wrestled through the last days of her life.
My personality made this agonizing because I’m a fixer. When someone is suffering, I will do whatever I can to help and if that’s just listening, I will do that actively. But Glo didn’t have anything to say anymore and only two people willing to be present if she did—her son in New York and me. When COVID grounded him, my place in the chair beside her felt more impossible. I was completely powerless to change anything while she struggled.
One evening sitting with Glo I asked God what He was trying to teach me. Surely, He was trying to show me something through this experience. The sun kept setting and just before it hid for the night Glo, who hadn’t been able to speak in weeks, opened her eyes, looked at me for a good long while and whispered, “Oh honey you’re always here,” before going right back to sleep.
I didn’t cry like you might expect, instead I found the night light and turned it on. As I did God whispered, I want you to see that when there’s nothing to be done, “the fix” is your presence. Doing nothing is sometimes doing everything. Such a simple truth that resonated deeply with the fixer in me.
Glo was not alone when she crossed the threshold to heaven. When I went to collect her belongings the nurse who’d been with her described her last moments while we sat with her body. She said Glo was the first patient she’d been with when they passed and it was beautiful.
“Thank you for being with her when I wasn’t,” I said. With that she took my hand and held it while I said my last goodbye.
Leaving hospice, I found a penny in the reception area near the angel tree they have. I’ve never believed the pennies I find are left by angels, but that morning I decided it was okay to imagine Glo dropping it down from heaven for me. Maybe it was her way of saying, I’ll always be with you too honey.
I take great comfort in this thought. Life is filled with hard things but when you know people are present for you, it’s much easier to believe God is too. This Christmas perhaps we should remember that we can all be “Emmanuel” in the life of someone whose greatest need is just a hand to hold.