In twenty two years as an Oncology nurse I’ve said goodbye to a lot of people. The real goodbye, the last one, when you look each other in the eye and know you will never see each other again on this side. It takes some real emotional grit to allow it, to allow them to do it and not try to deflect it because of your own discomfort.
The first time it happened I hadn’t been an Oncology nurse very long, and she was one of my favorite patients. She was a spunky, bright Mom of two, with a vicious cancer. Every time she came for treatment she had everyone in the infusion room laughing. She was full of light.
When she was first diagnosed her husband saw the lay of the land and immediately left her for another woman. As she endured one failing treatment after another, he refused to pay child support and fought her the house. But you’d never have known it.
And then one day there was nothing left to do. She would go home with Hospice and finish her days surrounded by family. On her way out I flushed and deactivated her I.V. port. It was just me and her and the elephant in the room. She was quiet for a moment and then she said:
“You know I won’t be coming back anymore. I just want to thank you for everything you did.”
I was just so young, and my heart was broken, and I couldn’t let her do it. I made some response that she’d come in for port flushes and I’d see her then. The moment passed and she was gone. And I never did see her again.
I wish 50 year old Mary could reach back across time and tell 29 year old Mary to just let her do it. That it would be the last thing I ever got to do for her.
I’ve had to say goodbye so many times since that day, and my heart has been broken so many times that it’s a roadmap of scar tissue. I’ve learned that you won’t die of it and that you won’t be sorry.
So, today I heard that a long time patient was in the hospital. Nothing left to do, going home with Hospice, at the end of a long, hard fight. So I went to see him.
I walked in and saw him there in the bright overhead light someone had left on. He was shrunken in his hospital gown, any sense of who he was or dignity removed.
When he saw me, his face crumpled and he began to cry. And the years fell away and he looked someone’s scared little boy. I hugged him and called him by name and pulled up a chair, and in so doing, handed him back his humanity.
We talked for awhile, then I asked if I could pray with him. I did, we cried, we hugged and as I stood to leave he looked me dead in the eye and said:
“Goodbye. Thanks for everything.”
And I let him.