The faces of illness and death can make us small. As nurses, we become large again at the intersection with others as they experience their own watershed moments. The simple mechanics of doing our jobs allow us to look through windows that open, wide and brief, into others’ lives, providing us great insight into our own. I learn much about interiority in this way.
My own seasonings as a nurse and as a person are inseparable. A defining point occurred in a dilapidated New England farmhouse with a screen door that flapped in the wind. Inside, torn floral linoleum covered a crooked floor. Greasy dishes were piled in a rust-stained sink. The house smelled of chain-saw oil and stale urine. An antique hospital bed, crank missing, was in the center of the room. Clint was young, only forty years old. He existed under the radar of authority. To live outside the law, his wife informed me while I did his Hospice intake interview, required that one must be honest. This family considered themselves outlaws; this family was unflinchingly honest.
Three months later, I pronounced his death. Friends and neighbors gathered in the dooryard, keeping a crude but comforting vigil. It was one part festival, one part wake, and one part street theatre. Singular customs like these distinguished every landmark in the lives of this unconventional, eccentric community.
Clint’s three weary brothers were at his bedside before he died. These were big, tough men, not afraid of much, yet morose with this dying happening so close to them. They strode through life, hard-drinking, hard-living desperados. Now they stood before death. Quiet. Stunned.
Their armor had failed.
But these men knew survival. The success, or failure, of hunting season determined the difference between a fat year for the family and a lean one. They told stories of the long, cramped surveillance from narrow deer stands in the numbing November cold. They could follow a buck’s trail in the woods for miles. They interpreted scrapes and smells. Their heavy bodies were graceful, feet planted carefully to avoid the snap of a twig. They predicted an animal’s behavior and its route. They tracked trails of blood, patches of hair caught on woody shrubs, and hoof prints on damp brown leaves. The brothers waited for good shots: a clean kill demonstrated mastery of the craft and respect for the animal, avoiding a slow and painful death. They knew all this deeply. Close to the bone. They read signs and followed inner guidance.
They knew that in his own way Clint had lived and died well.
The brothers left, after Clint’s heart stopped, charging the women with the care of the body. A feeling of tribe is associated with doing this work with others, at home. The air in a room changes when death arrives. A hush is discernible. When death is institutionalized, there is usually a lack, a void. Respecting the stillness, we women worked quietly together.
Into this pause, this threshold place, sudden gun shots exploded just outside the screen door. I jerked around and saw the three brothers in braced postures, the butts of their rifles gripped hard against their shoulders. Calloused hands, steady, prepared to shoot again. They aimed over the impenetrable far woods, and for a second then a third time the deafening shots pierced the stillness. They slowly lowered their guns. Quiet conversation resumed. The other women and I turned back to our work.
This ragged 3-volley salute from hunting rifles was a raw and eloquent prayer of grief and honoring, a spontaneous eulogy born of one family’s particular way of being in the world. Rich meaning and tradition are elements of every culture.
Nursing often requires doing constant impossibles. Contemplative nursing practice exists as the underpinning to all dimensions of all care that we provide, wherever we provide it. Reflection and compassionate service hold the potential for us to change lives and to be changed ourselves. Pilgrims, all of us. Together in this land of living and of the dead.