Magazine article The Christian Century

Death of a Caregiver: At the Bedside of a Man Who Visited the Bedridden

Magazine article The Christian Century

Death of a Caregiver: At the Bedside of a Man Who Visited the Bedridden

Article excerpt

WHEN I ARRIVE at the intensive care unit, the doctor tells me that Cameron is unresponsive, that he will die soon, very soon, perhaps that night.

I stare at Cameron through the sliding-glass door. He's lying on a bed with tubes and wires connecting his body to machines and translucent bags of fluids--saline and morphine, the doctor briefs me, to keep him hydrated and dull his pain. As I open the door, I hear a beep coming from a monitor suspended above him, a monotonous tone keeping time with his heart's pulse, reminding doctors and nurses and me that he's still alive, despite the lifelessness of his glazed eyes.

Sitting beside his bed, my tears dripping on his sheets, I reach my hand to his. My fingers quiver as we touch. I expect the warmth of my palm to awaken life in his. I expect his hand to grasp mine in return--the unspoken rule of handholding, of mutual recognition, the instinctual acknowledgment of touch. But his hand is limp, his skin cold and dry.

Sebastian Moore's words flash into my mind, about the moment "when all the mysteries of God will be revealed in the clasp of your brother's hand." I clasp Cameron's hand with both of mine and wait for revelations, for his flesh to unveil the mystery of death, the secrets of God. I look into his half-open eyes for a sign, but his blank stare gazes through me, beyond me, at nothing. Weariness is frozen on his face.

I tell him that I love him, that I'm going to miss him, and I whisper a prayer, asking God to comfort his body and keep watch for his soul. I murmur jumbled words while hospital machines drone around me and Cameron's chest rattles with each dying breath.

Years ago, Cameron invited me to join him for one of his weekly visits to an assisted living home. The staff greeted him by name as we walked a labyrinth of halls on our way to see two residents. Cameron knocked on an open door, and the man inside shouted for us to come in. His face brightened when he saw Cameron. I followed as Cameron walked across the room and bent over the man's bed for a delicate hug. Cameron's friend reached for my hand, grasping it for a moment, then invited us to have a seat.

Cameron pulled a copy of the New York Times from his grocery bag. "This one's his favorite," he whispered to me. Then he began to read the paper aloud, page by page, front to back.

After an hour or so we said good-bye, and I followed Cameron down the hall to another room, where he introduced me to a woman sitting in a chair. She didn't recognize Cameron but greeted us with a guarded smile, welcoming us into her room. She was glad to have visitors, she mumbled. As we sat down, Cameron took out the Wall Street Journal, and she recognized it as her favorite paper. After reading to her for a while, he asked me to take a turn.

Driving back to Cameron's apartment, I asked him how he had decided to spend time with those two people. He described his first trip to the assisted living home, when he asked the staff if he could visit residents who didn't have any visitors. They gave him a list of names, people who spent most of their days alone, and he worked his way through the list, asking each person what they would like him to read to them. Each week he would sit with people, talking and reading--two people this week, another two next week.

At the ICU, the night staff begins its shift. …

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