“Charlie,” Tambuli, Sept. 1987, 24
He was only sixty-eight, but he looked much older. His feeble body lay strapped to a narrow hospital bed. His breathing was shallow; his vital signs were failing. This was Charlie, one of twenty patients on the medical-surgical ward in the mental hospital where I was working as a nurse.
When I went on duty that night, his doctor told me Charlie was dying. But it was medically impossible to tell if his death would take a few hours or a few days. As night nurse, I would 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 things were different. Here most of the patients had been hospitalized for a number of years. Families had learned to live without them; some had given up caring. Calling a family in the middle of the night without being certain whether a patient was actually dying was against hospital policy.
As I stood at Charlie’s bedside, wondering what to do, I tried to imagine him differently—no longer aged beyond his years and with poor physical health or without mental faculties including memory. I imagined him as a young husband with a happy wife and laughing children. 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 death—-but I stood between them because I didn’t know when that would be.
I bowed my head and prayed aloud to know if I should call Charlie’s wife or not. Words came forcefully to my mind and heart: “Contact Charlie’s wife right away; he will die before daybreak.” 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, explaining that Charlie’s condition had worsened, and suggested that she come in. To my surprise, she was reluctant.
“I have a class 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 said painfully. “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 tried to say the right thing. “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 you need to decide.”
“Then I’ll come in first thing in the morning,” she replied, and hung up.
I was disappointed in her response, but I knew that the decision 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 I feel 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 decision to come, 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 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 how young she looked. Her graying 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. 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 responded 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 alive. 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 surrounded me, and I felt certain that everything would be all right.
As I was checking my other patients, an attendant 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 to listen for his heartbeat.
Charlie was lying still on the bed. His eyes were closed; a look of serene peace was on his face.
“He closed his eyes as I spoke to him,” his wife said. “Is he asleep?”
I placed the stethoscope on his still chest, knowing 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. “These few hours with Charlie were very precious!”