written by Nancy Malcolm
As I walked silently from the room, I could tell even the air was different. Every molecule in that room had shifted from dark to light; tense to tranquil. I am a volunteer for hospice and this is the story of the day I saw the face of God.
Christopher House, in Austin, Texas, is a fifteen room care facility for hospice patients whose symptoms temporarily cannot be managed at home. Patients are stabilized and then allowed to return home if they are able, as per their wishes. It is a more comfortable alternative to going to the hospital. Each room has a bed, a private bath, and conveniences for family members who accompany their loved one. As a volunteer, I never knew who would be there from week to week, and when a patient was gone they either went home or on to heaven. It was the goal to allow our patients the dignity to die at home, just as they wanted, surrounded by friends and family, in the comfort of a familiar setting. But, the beauty and serenity of Christopher House is the next best thing to home.
On Tuesday as I started my two-hour shift, one of the nurses called me to room number nine. “She’s been in so much pain and I think she’s finally getting comfortable. Would you sit with her for a while? Her family wasn’t here today.”
“Of course,” I said and as I entered the room I saw my little patient lying in bed, positioned on her side, facing the window.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Nancy and I’m a volunteer. Would you mind if I sat with you for a while?”
She didn’t answer, but I wondered if she could still hear me. Room number nine was painted in pale blue and had serene pictures on the wall. Her bed was next to a large window looking out to a covered patio with plants and flowers. The lights were off, but outside it was sunny and bright.
My patient was a tiny, older woman with caramel skin. She was in her twin size hospital bed, and beside her on the table was a large photograph of her and her husband on their wedding day, many years ago. She also had not one, but three Bibles in her room. One on the bedside table, one on the coffee table and one laying near the foot of her bed. All three were well worn with love and devotion.
I walked around the bed so we could see each other, but her eyes were fixed on the window and she didn’t acknowledge my presence. I continued to talk quietly, “Would you like me to read to you from the Bible? Let me get a chair.”
I couldn’t move her, so I wedged a folding chair between her and the wall. Taking the Bible from the bed, I sat down and tried to get calm.
“Do you have a favorite verse?” I asked.
I sat still and tried to match my breath with hers, but it was shallow and ragged, possibly from the pain. In and out I breathed, trying to slow down her pace, until I opened the Bible and said, “Let’s start with the Psalms.”
Her face was tight and her brows knitted, and I could see that her body was stiff. She looked uncomfortable, but the nurses had used pillows in all the right places to help her be supported and relaxed. I started to read and to my surprise, my voice was shaking.
Again I breathed in and out, slowly, and I started over.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Softly, I read Psalm after Psalm, stopping occasionally to let the powerful words sink in. It seemed that every verse I read was speaking to love, peace and trust and was just what I imagined she might want to hear.
“Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us according as we hope in thee.”
I continued until I felt the shift in her breathing. I felt it change from the shallow uneasiness to the slow and deep inhale and exhale. I was unaware of the time as I talked quietly to her in between the verses. Finally, I heard just the faintest whiffle of a snore and I closed her Bible and looked up.
That is when I saw the face of God.
Her body was totally relaxed and her face was smooth and youthful not a wrinkle to be seen. Even though her eyes were closed now, one lone tear was left to roll down her cheek and her lips were in a slight, pale smile. There was a light that surrounded her, nestling her like hands cradling a baby. You might think, “Oh, it must have been the light from the window.” But, I know it was not.
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thy own understanding.”
I knew her pain was gone. I knew her body was resting and I knew her face was God’s face. The power of those ancient words had changed her.
Quietly, I climbed out of my wedged space by the window, but I left the chair and her Bible open on it. Room number nine was different somehow. The air had changed, and there was a light and a feeling of peace so beautiful that I didn’t want to leave, but it was my time to go.
The next week when I returned to volunteer, my little patient was gone. “She went home,” the nurses said, and I knew that was true. She was home.