I can see from the doorway that her hair is grayer—almost white now—than just the night before. She has lost weight too. Her body is smaller, more fragile. Wrinkled skin draped over bone.
Her physical diminishing is more obvious every night when I return. But as I step into the dim glow of lamplight that illuminates her room and softly close the door behind me, I feel that all the cares of the world are left behind. I am entering a sanctuary of peace.
As her body melts away so do all the trivial cares. No more decisions. No more striving. No reputations to maintain. Nothing to prove. Nowhere to hide. Nothing to hide. There is no more pretending.
Her essence is all that remains. Only my presence brings complication and uncertainty into her sacred space. Even as I feel my interruption of her tranquility, I treasure the privilege of caring for her body as her soul prepares to leave this world for the next. It is a beautiful responsibility to minister to one so completely vulnerable and yet beyond vulnerability.
I pause for a moment to watch for the subtle rise and fall of her chest. Her breath remains shallow but steady with the rhythmic whooshing of the oxygen concentrator. Her eyes will never open again as she rests in a nest of pillows and blankets.
Nevertheless, I carry on a one-sided conversation with her as I gather a fresh night gown, wipes, adult diaper, soaker pads, and gloves. I revisit more animated conversations we shared in the past and relate my interactions with her family who reminisce and play cards in the next room—laughing and grieving in the same breath.
As I gently roll her side to side, cleaning and dressing her limp body, I am surprised again by how little she weighs. Even her slight weight feels heavy when she no longer has strength of her own.
I talk our way through each step, asking her how my actions feel and what she needs. I know I will get no answers, but I need to convey she is valuable, worthwhile, and cared for right to the end. It doesn’t matter what she can contribute or even what she has to say. She is here. And that is enough.
After tucking the pillows back in around her and covering her with warm blankets, I comb and smooth her hair. I sponge the inside of her mouth with cool water and rub salve on her cracked lips. Before gathering the garbage and laundry, I lean over her to assure her I’ll be back in two hours and to tell her goodbye—never knowing when which goodbye will be our last.
I pause at the door before reentering the world to look back at the dying woman bathed in warm lamplight. A frail reminder of both our fleetingness and our endurance.
And she is beautiful.