She was nearing the end of a long and interesting life. Her birth was announced on the party line in her rural community’s first telephone system. Her death, which would come soon, would be shared on Facebook and via cell phone. She had graduated with a degree in home economics from the University of Minnesota in 1938 and had worked for a meat packing company during and after World War II where she tested recipes and taught housewives about food safety. She wrote cookbooks, nurtured friendships, volunteered incessantly, and raised a family.
She was admitted to the hospital after a slow, uneventful decline. “Failure to thrive,” physicians call it. She often forgot whether she had eaten breakfast or whether her family had come to visit. Her stamina was gone and she was no longer interested in the newspaper or the world around her. She did not care that the baseball season was nearly complete and that her beloved Chicago Cubs were, once again, well out of the running. For her family and her medical caregivers, it was a time of sadness and farewell, but at 95, not unexpected.
I stopped by her room. She was dozing on-and-off.
“It’s so good to see you,” she said. “Are you working hard today? Lots of patients in clinic?”
“No, it’s Sunday. No work today.”
She smiled and closed her eyes. Her white hair, usually well kept, was matted to her forehead. The TV was on but muted. I sat down and took her hand.
On her bedside table were her glasses and her Bible — a well-worn companion that had been patched back together years ago with contact paper. A note from one of her grandchildren sat next to a water pitcher.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes and looked at me intently. I was startled. “What is it? Are you having pain?” I asked.
She squeezed my hand. “Oh, I’m fine. Tell me,” she said. “I was wondering. Do you think I will die today?”
In my years of medical training and practice, this was a question for which I had never prepared. Not infrequently, a cancer patient will ask me to estimate how long they have left and in those instances, I try to provide them with a realistic range of weeks or months. No one, though, had ever asked the question quite like this.
“I don’t know,” I replied, looking at her for any reaction. She was not frightened. “I am certain, though, that the time is getting very close. It might be today but I don’t know for certain.”
She closed her eyes and sighed. “That’s okay,” she said. “I’m ready. I’ve had a wonderful life.”
“That’s good to hear,” I replied not knowing what else to say. “You have, indeed, had a wonderful life. It is comforting to know that you are prepared to go.” She drifted off to sleep.
What, I wondered, had triggered her question? She knew that my work with cancer patients had given me ample opportunity to accompany families through their journeys. On the other hand, I knew that she had plenty of experience with death, as well. She had attended dozens of funerals over the past decade. Her husband and nearly all of her friends were gone.
She did not, in fact, die that afternoon. The next evening, though, while her Bears were beating the Packers on Monday Night Football, her heart beat its last.
The rest of the world went on, but for a time, my world stopped. My family and I completed arrangements for my mother’s funeral, a task made easier by her grace, her faith, and the simple gift she gave to us when she looked at me and said, “I’m ready.”
Bruce Campbell is an otolaryngologist who blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror.