“Charlie,” Ensign, Sept. 1986, 42–43
He was only sixty-eight, but he looked much older. His emaciated body lay strapped to a narrow hospital bed. His breathing was shallow; his vital signs were failing. This was Charlie, one of twenty patients in the medical-surgical ward at State Hospital (a mental institution).
“How’s he doing, doctor?” I asked the resident physician who was struggling to find a vein in the man’s flaccid arms.
He shook his head. “Charlie’s dying. It can’t be long.”
“Do you think he’ll go tonight?”
He shrugged. “It could be a couple of hours—or a couple of days. It’s hard to say.”
I nodded. I understood, but I didn’t like it. As the night nurse, I’d have to decide whether or not to call his family.
In a normal situation at a general hospital, I wouldn’t have hesitated to call the family, but here at State things were different. Charlie, like most of the patients, had been hospitalized for a number of years. Families had learned to live and function without them. Many had given up caring. I liked to believe that most of the families would want to be present at the time of death. But calling them in the middle of the night without being certain that death was imminent was against hospital policy.
And I didn’t know when Charlie would die. Neither did the doctor nor the evening shift nurses. Medically, it was impossible to determine how soon death would come—only that it was en route.
I stood at Charlie’s bedside, pondering. I tried to imagine him differently—no longer aged beyond his years and bereft of physical health and mental faculties including memory, but younger, a husband with a happy wife and laughing children. I had the feeling that if I were one of them, I would want to be present at the time of his death to somehow let him know that I still cared, that I still loved him.
I was filled with compassion for Charlie and his wife. They still loved each other, I was sure. They would want to be together at the time of his passing—but I stood between them because I didn’t know when that would be.
In the past when I have been confronted with problems I could not resolve, I turned to a constant source of help: prayer. I turned once again to that source, bowing my head and praying aloud that I might know if I should call his wife or not.
Words came forcefully to my mind and heart: I should contact her right away; he would be called home before daybreak. I no longer wondered what to do. I knew that Charlie had less than six hours to live and that it would take his wife an hour to get here.
Immediately I phoned her, explained that Charlie’s condition had worsened, and suggested that she come in. To my surprise, she was reluctant.
“I have a workshop to attend tomorrow,” she explained, “and I need to sleep.”
“But his condition is worsening,” I emphasized. “It might be a good idea if you were here.”
“What good would it do?” she agonized. “He hasn’t recognized me in months. It’s hard to see him this way.” She sighed heavily. “All right,” she said, softening, “I’ll come in. I’ll be there between 7:00 and 8:00 in the morning.”
But that would be too late! Frantically, I searched for words. “I think you should come in sooner than that!” I said, “—like right away!”
“Why?” she asked.
I wanted to tell her what I’d heard in answer to prayer, but could not. “Ma’am,” I began slowly, “your husband is dying, and I think it would be a good idea for you to come in soon.” I paused. “But that decision is up to you.”
“Then I’ll come in first thing in the morning,” she replied, and hung up.
I was disappointed in her decision, but I knew that it was hers to make. I tried not to think about it as I checked the other patients, but silently I prayed that she’d change her mind. Fifteen minutes later she called back.
“Do you really think he’s dying?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Do you think he’ll die before morning?”
I paused briefly before answering. “Medically speaking, I can’t say for sure. But my feeling is that he will die before morning.”
“Then I’ll come in,” she said. “I’ll be there in an hour.”
I was elated about her change of mind, but as I thought about it, I became concerned. How sad it was that her dying husband wouldn’t be able to recognize her or realize the effort she was making to be with him.
I went about my duties pondering the situation. At 1:00 A.M. I distributed medications, and as I walked down the silent corridor I again felt the need to pray. So, going to a linen closet where I could be alone, I once again asked our Father in Heaven for help—that Charlie would at least be able to recognize his wife, that this one last time there might be love between them—if not in words, at least in tenderness and shared feelings.
It was 3:00 A.M. when she arrived. I was surprised at her youthful appearance. Her salt-and-pepper hair was neatly styled; she was slim and petite. She looked a youthful fifty, while Charlie looked an ancient eighty. She introduced me to a lovely young woman who had come with her—her daughter.
I walked with them to Charlie’s room—partially to make them comfortable and check on Charlie, but mostly to see if my prayer had ascended above the top shelf of the linen closet. As they went to his bedside, a light seemed to pass through Charlie’s vacant blue eyes. His clenched fists relaxed and he tried to speak. His wife sat in the chair beside him, gently stroking his arm. Then Charlie smiled.
“I think he recognizes me!” she cried. There were tears in her eyes. And in Charlie’s. And in mine.
“I know he does,” I answered, and quietly left the room.
Periodically I checked Charlie’s vital signs. They were slowly worsening, but Charlie continued to be calm and gentle—contrary to his usual erratic behavior. He was receptive to his wife’s touch and soft-spoken words of love. He did not speak, but they communicated; love flowed between them.
At 5:00 A.M. Charlie was still maintaining. Sunrise was less than forty-five minutes away; I began to worry about Charlie’s death—not if he would die, but how. He and his wife had spent such a beautiful, special time together! I hoped the memory would not be spoiled by a difficult struggle with death.
Quickly I returned to the linen closet for the third time that night and prayed that when the time came, his life might end quietly. As I knelt there, a feeling of calmness enveloped me, and I felt certain that everything would be all right.
As I was checking my other patients, the attendant with whom I was working came to find me.
“It’s Charlie,” he said. “I don’t know if he’s gone or not.” I reached for a stethoscope from the nurses’ station as we walked by.
Charlie was lying still on the bed. His eyes were closed; a look of serene peace graced his countenance.
“He closed his eyes as I spoke to him,” his wife said. “Is he asleep?”
I placed the stethoscope on his still chest; I knew I wouldn’t hear anything. I turned to them and said, “Charlie has gone home.”
They wept quietly. Later I walked them to the door, letting my arms around them convey what words could not.
“Thanks for calling me,” Charlie’s wife whispered, squeezing my arm. “I wouldn’t have missed these few hours for the world!”