The natural progression of my career as a CNA to transitioning into End Of Life Doula work has been full of moments in which I have walked with death. I started at the age of 18 as a Certified Nurses Aide in a teeny town in Montana. I was a sponge...soaking up all of the knowledge about nursing that I could. I watched how people interacted with the residents of our local nursing home and how they interacted with everything. Working with the Elder population, there is no way you don't deal with death.
16 years later and still doing End Of Life CNA work, and I have realized something. I have walked with death a long time..... It waved at me when I was 10 and lost my grandmother that I was not very close too and really didn't get a chance to know....it grabbed my hand when I lost a dear friend at the age of 15, This time I could feel it's touch and understood the pain of that touch....It has continued to take my hand, and in many ways with family, friends and those that I care for at end of life... Guide me. I remembered the first time I was innately aware that there was a very conscious way about death.
When I was 16 I started working in a kitchen of the only "retirement" home at the time. Meaning you had to be able to care for yourself, but we provided all meals. I worked all through high school there and once I graduated went to the local nursing home and got my CNA license. And once I got up there and started to provide care, I realized all of the people I had been serving meals to and getting to know and love were coming to the nursing home. one by one and one by one they left. It wasn't until one little man in particular came that I started to actually pay attention to death.
This little man had come to be one of my favorite people and I didn't realize it until much later. He was a native man in his late 90's at the time and he only had one eye and he was very very quiet. Always polite, but never talkative. Every morning rain or shine, snow or ice he was out there walking around the building. Here it would be 10+ below zero in north central Montana in the middle of winter and here he would be. Walking. Walking. After his walk where did he go? Why straight the dining room. In he would come and I would have a huge smile on my face and say "Hello! Good Morning" he always nodded and only had to tell me his order once or twice before I remembered his order and we got in a rhythm. I would see him coming in and I would have his order ready by the time he got in and settled into his chair. And I always made small talk and he always nodded. Years went by like that. Then I graduated and left for the Care Center.
Another year goes by and he isn't a thought in my mind. I was working night shift by then doing 12 hour shifts. I get to work one night and I hear we have a new resident. I get report and see his name at the bottom of the page and I was soooo excited. He was on my hall and my resident to care for. I bounded in his room again with that big smile on my face and said "Hello I am so happy to see you! Do you remember me?" He nodded. It became our new rhythm to walk down to the shower room and have a bath. He always did whatever I asked and always with a please and thank you. Again I talked and he nodded. I found some tea tree lotion one day and lathered his back and this became our routine.
One night as he is sitting in the tub he leaned over to me and said "You know what?" and I said "What?" He says. "I'm 100 years old and in 6 months I will be 101...I think I am going to live to be a 101". I said "I did know that and I think if you want to, you will". And on we went. Bath times came and went. Time came and went. Then his 101 birthday came and went. There was a big party with all of his children and his grand children. Then he stopped eating. He stopped walking and baths in the shower room became bed baths. He slowly made his way and the time was here. He began to actively transition and I was at the end of 5 12's with 5 off. I left that morning and I didn't say goodbye, I said see you later.
When my 5 days off were up and I went back my first night I had full expected my friend to be gone. I was actually in a little bit of shock. I had no concept of how any of this worked and how long a soul can take to decide it's ready. I got report he was actively transitioning and it would be any time. I gathered my PM linens on my cart and began passing the gowns, wash clothes and towels I would need to put people to bed. I got to his room and there he was. with long periods of Apnea and mottling to his fingers. Next to him sat a chair. I took a moment and I walked over and sat in that chair. I picked up his hand and I felt the overwhelming need to tell him thank you. Thank you for letting me serve you breakfast, lunch and dinner all those years. Thank you for letting me give you bath all this time. I told him I was so proud he made it to 101, that he said he was going to do it and he did. I told him to have a good journey and that this was only goodbye for now. I walked out and off I went into the next room and passed my linens. When I came out, two aides met me at the door and stated he passed. Just like that. That quick.
That is when I realized that his body was a vessel and his soul chose when it was time to finally let go and transition. That there is a delicate dance that is happening between death and a soul in those final moments. One cannot achieve the end result without each other. And there is a palpable energy to the air when this happens. I felt it here with this man and after, I felt a sadness and then I felt such gratitude that I was given the gift to be able to engage with this soul in the very final moments.
I truly have walked with death a very long time and it has taught me everything about life and the natural progression of it. What to do with it while you are here. When to make the best of it before we depart on our journey. The tragedy that time is finite and our souls are not. One could say at this particular time...I am thankful for it.