I sat with a woman; while awake, she couldn’t seem to talk.  I asked how she was, if she had pain but the best I could hear was a muddled reply.  Maybe she had a stroke; maybe she was confused from her illness or the side effects of the meds.   She moved her hand slightly to touch mine.  Holding each other’s hand, we talked for a long time in that silent language of touch.  Mychal Judge would be pleased.
The look is familiar now.   A family huddled together, talking on cell phones, standing pensively at a bed.  These folks so want more; there must be more.  Another treatment, a new drug, an answer – a miracle.  

Lauren was one of these family members.  Her mother arrived yesterday.

“It just can’t be like this, my mother was only supposed to go in for a simple procedure – really a hospital pit stop – before a trip to Florida to visit my brother.”  But tests discovered an intestinal blockage.  Surgery confirmed tumors that were inoperable.  The hospital did all that it could; hospice became the best option.

“It’s just not fair, she has so much to live for.”  I hear about 8 children, 15 grandchildren, and even 2 great grandchildren – of graduations and birthdays and next week’s Halloween costumes.

“How can this be?  Lauren keeps repeating, “how can this be?”

Indeed, how can this be, and yet it is.  Hospice care comes one person at a time, one family at a time. Yet the questions can be so daunting and only a fool would offer platitudes.  

In mentoring a young seminarian new to hospital ministry, Mychal Judge once said that “God would give you the words to say, and if not, then just be quite and present.”  

Quite and present.  It was great advice today.
As I walked up the path to hospice, I noticed a bed with a patient and what appeared to be her family around the bed.   Sure enough, I learned that at the family’s request, the staff (truly, angels work there) moved the patient – bed and all – out into a beautiful, sunny October day.  Over a short 30 minutes, I discovered that their mom – now in her early 90s – had just come to hospice and her adult children were tending the vigil that only those who have stood at the bedside of a loved one understands.

This was a wonderful family.  They told me stories of an amazing women, who having been widowed 35 years ago and and with three children, learned to drive, went back to work and managed to balance the demands of family, finances, and a job – and still have dinner on the table at 6:00 p.m. every night.

I learned of a spirit who remained open, loving and accepting throughout her life and raised three incredible children.  And of children who welcomed her into their homes in her declining and bedridden years.  I heard stories of someone who loved the outdoors, flowers and birds.  

Then I went inside to visit other patients and families; to hear of hopes and dreams – and the sadness of ending life.  Later that afternoon, I was told that the lady who rested peacefully outside with her family had just died.

As I returned to the family, they shared their sadness but also their thankfulness of what just happened.  We stood around their mom’s bed knowing that her spirit had just left for a journey towards light and love and peace.  At the foot of her bed was a blanket of autumn flowers -- and the robins and cardinals that she loved so much enjoyed the water of a close-by fountain and flew to branches overhead.

Like the sun of that fall day amide the beauty of a garden lovingly keep, this incredible family was filled with thankfulness that their mother’s final moments were in a place that had made her the happiest and that they were there to share it with her.
I recently spent time with a husband whose wife of 32 years was a patient.  She had been his long-term partner and best friend for the better part of his life.  Over the eight days that his wife was at hospice, he spent every possible waking minute tenderly caring for her every need even though she was unable able to communicate directly with him.  But communicate she did through his sharing of tales of their life together – of the joys and the challenges they faced – living their lives.  

I asked him what gave his wife joy.  I heard wonderful stories of her volunteering every Saturday with the homeless, of being the “Mom-taxi” for their children and now their grandchildren, of her insisting that everyone vote.  She was a woman "on a mission."

The last time I saw him, he told that my question about “her joy” deeply touched him.  It reminded him of what he knew all along, that his wife was her “best self” when she was of service to others.  I think that might be one of the secrets of life.
Passing away at hospice is a process very often occurring over days or even a few weeks.  Families sit in vigil at the bedside of their loved one attending to every need while doctors and nurses manage the healthcare process.  

For families, the process can be overwhelming.  There is the juggling of so many emotions amide the details of inviting family and friends for goodbye visits and beginning to think about a memorial service – all while dealing with everyday jobs and family responsibilities.

Yet I so often witness nobility.   Families let go of past hurts and find ways to support each other while saying goodbye to someone they have so loved.  I watch families support other hospice families in their own grief.   I see kindness and warmth.  There is so much that is great in us.

It continues to amaze me how lucky I am to be a hospice chaplain.  I am invited into the most intimate and tender moments of a family’s life and welcomed as a trusted confidant.   While a stranger before this time, I am included as a friend in the many emotions that so often accompany the passing of a love one. 

There is nothing particularly special about me.  Yet, I am invited into this sacred space to listen and to pray.   The best I often have to give is a warm embrace, a hand to hold and the wisdom of silence.  My prayer is that I am equal to this sacred task.
Today is the Feast Day of the great St. Francis.  While he lived in the 13th century, he along with his friend St. Clare began a revolution in Christianity that lives to this very day. This ministry is named after another Franciscan, Fr. Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Department chaplain who died on 9/11 while caring for injured fireman inside the World Trade Center (read more in "About Us").  This Franciscan spirit of service informs this entire ministry.  

On average, I visit with hospice patients four days a week.  As I sit in my Jeep outside of the inpatient hospice facility, I pray that God increase and that I decrease.  I pray to remember that I have two ears and only one mouth for a reason.  I pray that I be totally attentive to the patients, families, and staff that await me inside.  I remind myself that this is His ministry and not mine; that "success" as commonly understood is not my concern.  

I will be ordained a Catholic priest in St. Louis next month.  On my ordination prayer cards I have printed the prayer of Fr. Mychal.  I repeat this prayer as I walk into hospice:

"Lord, take me where you want me to go.  Let me meet who you want me to meet.  Tell we what you want me to say.  Keep me out of your way!"