Light and Truth from a Hospice Bed
An aged priest limps down the aisle, clutching what looks like pure light in his hands. Golden sun-like rays have been welded around the outline of a single circle, surrounding a single piece of bread in the middle – the Host -- and there, kneeling in the convent, I can hear words of the Gospel “This is my Body… whomever eats of it shall have eternal life.”
Each step seems a mile for him, and I can see him grimacing as his right foot touches the ground. His gait is slightly twisted, and it seems that all he can do is hold the monstrance tilted at about a 45 degree angle and doggedly move forward. The altar servers look concerned, but their eyes are fixed on the host as well; it is the reason we are all here. In my mind’s eye, something comes to mind – another figure, walking behind him, holding his left arm steady to match the destabilizing right foot. I see his short beard, his shoulder-length hair, his own pained expression. He knows what it is like to carry a burden that is too heavy, to walk when you can’t take a step. He is Jesus Christ.
I walk into the hospice, looking again at how much it reminds me of a retirement home. The lights are low, fake flowers are everywhere, and the atmosphere is quiet, warm, and comfortable. One wouldn’t think that such a terrifying thing as death would visit here frequently, but I’ve learned that death really isn’t so terrifying, only different. It’s the different we’re afraid of. Somehow, the combination of lights and flowers take a bit of the edge away, but to me, the undercurrent of fear and loss is still there.
Everything is as usual when I open my violin case, set it on the ledge behind the front desk, and grab my chart. Starting at the first room, I ask families and patients (at this stage, mostly families) if they’d like for me to play for them. Most say yes, a few patients are asleep. Moving from room to room, I play the old favorites, “How Great Thou Art,” and “Amazing Grace.” It’s amazing to me that the families, in a place of such sadness, are still seeking God, seeking light. I wonder if one day, I’ll be able to do the same.
I meet him on the third hall. As I walk into the room and approach the bed, I’m feeling a little tired, and I wonder if I should just leave. The patient is asleep, and that confirms my thought; I’m almost done, I should go home, I should sleep too. The man is white, about sixty-five or seventy years old. His hospital bed faces a small table with a crucifix, many cards, and a wooden rosary swirling around the spaces in between the cards and the crucifix. Thinking that he probably won’t wake anytime soon, I turn around, and walk out of the room. I reach for my pen to check his name off, but stop when I see the words in bold. Next to “Air Force Chaplain,” are two words: “Catholic Priest.”
My pen freezes in mid-air, and I hold my violin a little more tightly. The image of the priest in the convent is suddenly in my mind, a man walking in pain for something greater than himself, and Someone walking beside him, step by step. Turning around quickly, I walk again into the room. I kneel in the entry-way, shielded from the bed by a blue armchair, bowing my head and saying a prayer for Father Brown. I attempt to rise silently, but my shoes squeak on the wooden floor. His eyes open.
He sees me, and slowly, a shaking hand rises from his side. He is gesturing me to come over. As I step towards the bed, I’m trying to remember whether Parkinson’s is a cognitive or physical disease, but I can’t remember. I’m not sure if he understands me, but I want to tell him I prayed for him, that I am Catholic too, that we share this amazing faith that he devoted his life to; it is the only thing that I can think of. Not knowing if he can understand speech, I make the Sign of the Cross, a universal sign of Catholicism.
He looks at me again, and I can see the surprise in his eyes. He lifts one of his hands off of the pillow in front of him and raises it towards his forehead, resting it there for a second. As his right hand moves from his forehead to his chest, it shakes severely, and he has to rest again. Then his hand moves to his left shoulder, then to his right. It takes him some time; his hands are shaking so. Unbeknownst to him, they have turned traitor in these last few years, and it is all he can do to get them to submit.
As he looks at me, his hand still on his right shoulder, I nod, knowing that he understood me. His obvious struggle to control his hands reminds me of the many times I’ve made the Sign of the Cross so quickly one could almost see it whole in the air, not thinking, not caring about its significance as a reminder of the cross that Jesus died on, a reminder of his suffering and sacrifice, a sign of our salvation.
Keeping his gaze, I raise my violin, my hands shaking almost as badly as his. I usually ask patients what they want to hear, but this time I know. The song comes to me as suddenly and vividly as the image of Christ accompanying the convent’s priest did, an old spiritual called “Were You There.” As my bow crosses the strings, I see the lyrics of the song made real – I can see Jesus’s disciples at the foot of the cross, at the place of his suffering, the place of his sacrifice, the place of his pain.
Father Brown’s eyes close and his eyebrows have come closer together, his face looks on the verge of tears. I’m past that point now, tears are falling onto the wood of my violin. So I close my eyes as well, hoping that I can get control of my heart that feels as if it is being pulled like the strings of my violin. I open my eyes when I hear a voice beginning to sing – a woman’s voice. A volunteer has walked in and is singing in beautiful tones the unspoken lyrics. It is when I hear the lyrics out loud that I stop playing.
The volunteer takes this as an opportunity to introduce herself and begin talking. She tells me that she is from the church, that she has been visiting “sweet Father Brown” for the past three weeks, and that “Father loves music.” She looks at him as a mother looks at a child, and I see in Father’s face a look that resembles something of an eye-roll as the volunteer chatters on. I smile at her, recognizing her as one of those benevolent, motherly, chatty church ladies with a heart of gold.
It is mid-chatter that Father opens his mouth and suddenly, the volunteer’s words cease. She turns to him and asks him if he needs anything, but he raises a finger to his lips, and she laughs. “Father used to always tell me I gab too much.” I ask him if he is asking me to play anything. He nods, his head moving ever so slightly up and down.
A sound deep within him rises. “OH COME” he says. The words are loud, forceful, pushed up on a stream of air from his diaphragm. The volunteer and I jump. “Oh Come Emmanuel?” we ask. It is the only thing I can think of. He shakes his head, mouth still open. Then we start guessing songs, random Christmas songs that might be related to “O Come Emmanuel.” After two minutes of interrogation, he again raises a shaking finger to his lips. We laugh, but there is an undercurrent of fear – what if we are not able to find out the song he wants? That’s a thought too sad to consider and one that is increasingly hard to push out of my mind as the scene progresses.
He looks at us meaningfully, and then raises his arms to his shoulders, flapping them. He says what sounds like “angels;” we confirm with another nod of his head. The last word is harder, and our many questions don’t elucidate what Father is trying to say. Thank God for Google suggested results and the volunteer’s iPhone– it is the way that we finally find out that the word is “Band,” and the song is an old one, sung by Johnny Cash in the 60s. When I confirm that this is the song, Father Brown’s head bounces up and down with happiness and he raises his hands, one finger moving each side of his mouth up in a wide grin.
We can’t find the chord progressions just yet, so the volunteer plays it on YouTube. His whole face changes… an expression of joy so vivid it seems unreal, especially so on an otherwise paralyzed face. Tears come again into my eyes; in these hours, they never seem to leave.
After listening to the song once, I play it on the violin, the sound reverberating from the wooden floors and the room coming alive with the joyful words “O Come Angels Band/O Come, Around Me Stand/Carry Me Away on Your Snow-White Wings/To My Eternal Home.” As I finish, the hospital chaplain comes in another priest named Father John, a Cajun African-American from Louisiana. He bursts into the room with a loud “My old enemy! How are you doin’?” and a booming laugh. Father Brown grins again, his eyes looking positively mischievous and delighted. “You need anything, Father B?” and Father Brown croaks, eyes still dancing, “Water.” So I walk out the room and ask the nurse if he can have a glass of water, but the nurse says that this is not allowed, that he would choke. Father Brown is receiving an IV line, she says, but this comforts me little; his lips are so cracked, his skin so dry.
She looks at me still standing at the desk, annoyed. Taking a swab, she walks to the room and soaks it in water. She swabs the inside of his mouth, taking cream and roughly patting his lips. She asks him if it is better. He shakes his head. She swabs more cream, a little more carelessly, and a bit of it gets caught in the corner of his mouth. She asks him if that is better. He nods. His eyebrows move slightly, he nods, and the nurse, satisfied that she has done her duty, leaves. I know that he knows that it’s not going to get better, that he is close to the end. Once again, a verse from the Jesus’s Passion reading comes to mind, “He asked for wine, and someone ran and soaked a sponge in vinegar, which they raised to the cross. But when he had tasted it, he would not drink.”
After she leaves, he gestures me to the side of the bed, indicating that I should pick up the violin again, which I have left in a chair. It is ten days til Christmas, so I play one of my favorites “O Holy Night.”
It is when I reach the third verse of “O Holy Night” that something dramatic happens. Father Brown opens his mouth and with a shout – I can only describe it as shouting – sings “Fall on your knees.” The words are drawn out, the articulation imperfect (his tongue is so relaxed that it is hard to move), but the words are there and they are strong. As he sings, he moves back and forth, his eyes scrunched as if he is crying. But he does not have enough fluid to cry; no tears are coming. So he takes a single finger and traces it slowly, shaking down his face, a single tear, trickling down his cheek.
Ten minutes later, it is clear that he is tired and he asks to rest. I leave, praying with him before I go. I know that chances are slim that I will see him again; I am leaving for home in a few hours, and I know that Father Brown is days from death. The other chaplain has also told me of the great despair that Father Brown is feeling, especially because it is so hard for him to communicate and make himself heard. It is usually the anguish which leads to death.
Father Alan Brown died on Christmas Day 2016.
The Rocky Path To Light and Truth
So often service is yet another thing that we can put on a resume. On my LinkedIn, I have written “Violinist at Alive Hospice,” with the hours that I worked there in the fall semester of my sophomore year. But items on a resume cannot fully grasp experiences, especially not incredibly meaningful encounters. As Vanderbilt students, we are constantly looking to have more meaningful and varied experiences; after all, we are told that college is four years of the most unforgettable experiences of our lives. Most of all, we are told again and again that service is integral for medical and law school applications, that we must show that we care in hours and opportunities. Sometimes we forget why we are serving and for whom, and service becomes a set time once a week rather than a mindset that in every act, in every moment, we are called to serve like the one who wrapped the towel around his waist, washed our feet, and forgave our sins.
So let us serve as the saints served, looking to engage, looking to walk with. Engaging with others turns our eyes towards the face of the man experiencing homelessness who stares at the ground as we walk to class. Or the Vanderbilt worker whom no student speaks to except for a disinterested “How are you?” Or the floormate who struggles to work through mental health issues alone. In these ways, we accompany each other, supporting one another’s limp. We stand at the sterile bedsides with nothing but our silence. We sit in those hard chairs of nursing homes and listen to those same stories that we know so well. We step past the pitfalls of loneliness and over the rocks of mutual struggle. If either stubs his toe, the other can bandage it and as two, then three, then more, we continue – one Body, light merging into light as more join, the light growing bigger as a flame merges into a fire. One of my lights, Father Alan Brown, leaned on me for two hours, but his presence and his love will remain with me my entire life, walking with me towards our final home together.