“Well done, thou good and faithful servant
...Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."
We became friends during the closing chapter of his life, brought together by the Hospice Volunteer Coordinator who asked me to visit Al at the Assisted Living residence high on the hill overlooking town.
During our early get-togethers with his wife, Marge, interpreting his ninety-five year old speech, I learned that this graduate of UCLA had been widowed twice, and until his retirement, had presided over a heavy equipment transportation company that sometimes moved space capsules around the globe. During World War II, he played a pivotal role in the Pacific as a young Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Air Corps. He and the five hundred men under his command landed on the island of Saipan, where Al and his troops were charged with rebuilding and repairing the hastily assembled B-29 Bombers shipped in by boat from assembly lines in the States.
“Rosie the Riveter was cranking out some god-awful aircraft that were killing more crews on their maiden flight than all the anti-aircraft guns in the Japanese army,” he told me. “Our job was to figure out why the engines disintegrated in as little as nineteen flying hours, fix 'em and keep 'em flying.” Thankfully, they did.
Al and I commiserated about this and that - on Saturdays we enjoyed fresh fruit my wife picked up for him at the Farmers Market, he listened with rapt attention as I read chapters from Colin Powell's biography, we watched television (or pretended to) as he snoozed in his blue recliner. And on one occasion, I pushed him in his wheelchair through the beautiful gardens of the Assisted Living residence as we pilfered enough roses, lilac and assorted greenery to make a lovely bouquet, which he presented to his blushing wife on our return.
I always saluted Al when I came to visit because, as I pointed out to anyone present, Al outranked me. Which always made him smile.
When a terminally ill person is accepted into hospice, a team of specialists including a doctor, nurse, social worker, inter-faith chaplain and a volunteer are assigned to the patient to work with the family caregiver during this difficult time. Our goal is to help reduce the physical, psychological, social and spiritual suffering of the patient and their families; to assist them in maintaining a sense of self worth; to contribute to the quality of their lives during the dying experience; and to support their families through the natural bereavement and adjustment process that follows.
We had been pals for nearly three months when he slipped into the coma. When I arrived for the 21-hour bedside vigil, several family members were already there. I ministered to him as the extended family continued arriving or phoning through the day and evening. I was privileged to hear the stories and see the photos they shared, to witness the love and joy each one demonstrated for this wonderful husband, father, uncle, grandfather, great grandfather, mentor and more. I learned about the granddaughter he'd taught to sail, the lessons of repeating “How Now Brown Cow” he'd used to help his great-grandson correct a childhood speech impediment, and his philosophy that “each person is free to make their own history.”
The florist who creates the lovely arrangements for the retirement facility stopped in to say goodbye, enfolded me in her arms and began weeping… as I, unable to hold back, joined her.
The aide that had seen to Al's needs for several years stroked his hair, crying softly as she kissed his closed eyes.
A minister that Al and Marge knew came by late in the afternoon and held an impromptu service.
Knowing that the last sense we lose is our sense of hearing, his granddaughter, a beacon of positive energy, kept up a running dialog, explaining who was there to see him, which relative or friend was on the phone she was holding to his ear, whose greeting card had just arrived in the mail that his grandson delivered to his bedside.
He let us know he heard it all - whenever we spoke to him, his pulse, so faint at times I could hardly feel it, became markedly stronger.
Family members took turns holding his hand and telling stories that filled in the blanks of his multi-faceted history including one from Marge about a stepson, a quadriplegic who wanted to attend college but couldn't because there was no wheelchair access at that time in California state colleges. So Al, making his own history, called on the Governor and then the State Senate, lobbying until he got wheelchair access guaranteed at all state colleges.
Late in the evening, as family members retired to hastily arranged beds on other floors of the facility, I was joined by his granddaughter and great-grandson, who lay down on blankets spread on the floor on either side of his bed like protective sentries.
Now it was my turn to sit in Al's blue recliner, to keep watch through the wee hours; to call for medication if he showed any sign of discomfort; to pray; and reassure him in the silence of my heart that he'd fought the good fight and was free to return home to his Beloved whenever he was ready.
The hours passed slowly, and then for some unknown reason, I began humming Somewhere Over The Rainbow. As I hummed, I was suddenly aware of movement to my right and turned to see who had entered. But no one was there, and I thought to myself, “Boy, I must be so tired I'm seeing things.”
I changed the cold compress, took his pulse from time to time and watched as it slowly declined from 40, to 28, to 17 beats per minute.
At 3:15 a.m., as I watched his breathing, the fluttering motion to my right occurred again, almost as if several people had scurried in, talked busily among themselves, turned and left just as quickly. These occurrences continued every fifteen or twenty minutes thereafter. Each time, I looked to find no one standing there.
At 5:00 a.m., I took a walk down the hall to stretch my legs and got into a conversation with the head nurse. Up to that point, she had been warm, yet medically professional. But when she asked, “how are you doing in all this?” and I told her about the fluttering motion in the room, we entered a new level of honesty.
“A lot of people have died on this floor. I've been here for over a year, and that fluttering thing happens all the time when someone's getting ready to go. I see movement, always in my peripheral vision, and when I turn there's no one physically there. But they're here all right. You can believe it.”
“What do you think it is?” I asked.
“Angels who've come to usher them across when they're ready,” she replied with sincerity.
“So it's true.”
I returned to the recliner and began tracking the time between breaths, which were now occurring at irregular intervals ranging from 6 to 32 seconds apart. The fluttering incidents continued. At 6:15 a.m., Al closed his mouth for the first time in days, as if he were swallowing. Then he opened it again to continue breathing. He moved his mouth again several times as if trying to shape words. I thought the pain had returned and went to get the nurse to give him some medication.
At 6:23 a.m., his grandchildren awoke, I kissed his forehead, and Al's Angels returned again. This time he was ready.
A week later, after the memorial and funeral were complete, I stopped in to see how his wife was faring. As we talked about life and death, God and what may or may not be on the other side, she said, “You know, Patrick, the most wonderful thing has happened. All my life I've been afraid of death. But now, seeing how peaceful and beautiful it can be, I'm not afraid any more. Somehow I know when the angels come for me, I'm going to be just fine.”
© 2005 Patrick J. Murphy
Read another inspiring story — "Little Thihgs"
Learn more about author, Patrick J. Murphy