I remember clearly the first time I watched someone die. I was an Orderly at the Pine Rest Christian Hospital in Cutlerville, Michigan… a psychiatric center and long-term care facility for the mentally challenged. Mr. Harry was an older man who fell apart after his wife’s death and because he could no longer take care of himself, the family admitted him to the center. He had been there for about a year, at the time I started working there, and I always felt sorry for him because of the way some of the other Orderlies teased him. He was always asking if anyone had seen his wife in the lobby because he was sure that today was the day she said she would visit. Most would just say no but at times he would get responses like, “Yes, I did see her but she was with another man.” or, “She ain’t never coming back to you Harry so you might as well forget her.” I asked one of the Nurses why people didn’t just tell him the truth and she said he had blocked his wife’s death out of his mind and it was just easier to let him believe she was still alive.
When I came into work, after two days off, I was told that Harry had developed pneumonia and would most likely die soon. The nurse asked if I would give him a bed bath to make him feel a little more comfortable. As I began the bath he started talking to me and I was surprised at how coherent he was. He thanked me for showing kindness to him and for not teasing him about his wife like the others had done. He told me that he had always known she was dead but went along with the act because it was a way of avoiding talking about it. I finished the bath and went on to clean the bathrooms and empty the catheter bags that hug along side of most of the beds. I was mopping the floor on the ward when I noticed the nurse and a Doctor going into Harry’s room. I stood at the door and watched as Harry took his last breath. The Doctor listened for a heartbeat with his stethoscope and then pulled the sheet up over his face and left the room.
“Is he dead?” I asked as tears rolled down my cheeks.
“Yes,” the Nurse responded, “ he is gone.”
“But I was just talking to him a few minutes ago.”
“I know,” she responded, “I don’t understand it myself… but let’s take a coffee break. We can take care of the body when we come back.”
I was a bit shocked by her response and asked her how she could be so calm after just witnessing a death. She looked into my tear filled eyes and smiled as she said: “You get used to it.”
I didn’t believe her at the time, however… it didn’t take me long to realize that she was right.
I went on to Nurse’s training and then joined the Navy to be a Marine Corps medic. Death became a common occurrence regardless of where I went. Most of my Company was wiped out during Operation Allen Brooke in 1968. I was the last survivor to leave the battlefield. (NO HEROES). After being wounded I worked at the Bethesda Naval Hospital on Tower Nine where cancer was the main cause of death. After my discharge, I worked with the Navajo and Zuni Indians in NewMexico where suicide took the lives of many of the young people I worked with. In Honduras gunfights and machete wounds was the main cause of death, and in Cambodia HIV and AIDS was responsible for several hundred deaths.
I don’t remember every hand I have held during the process of transition… the names of most I have forgotten, or perhaps like Harry, I have chosen to forget them just to make Life simpler. There are a few, however, that I can not forget… not that they were more important than the others but because of unexplainable phenomena that occurred during or after their departure… phenomena that have challenged my perception of Life and of God.
Colonel Wilde was dying of cancer on Tower Nine of Bethesda Hospital. I was working night duty and had just finished my rounds when I saw a greenish light in his doorway. I stepped into his room as he took his last breath. Was it him saying goodbye to me?
Ed was a patient at Pine Rest. He had complained about chest pains earlier in the evening and the Doctor had ordered a sleeping med for him. As I made my rounds and stepped into his room, I sensed immediately that he was not there. His body lay on the bed but he was gone.
Ratana was a young boy who lay peacefully in his bed, his mother and myself at his side. A small puppy he had befriended lay quietly under his bed until Ratana took his last breath. The puppy suddenly started barking and ran out of the room as if he were following someone.
I held Chhang’s hand for nearly an hour until he took his last breath. Many of the children were also in the room with me. Suddenly Chhang reached up to put his hand around my neck like he had done before when he wanted me to carry him… and as he called my name, a light shot out from his eyes and passed right through me. His hands then fell back to his side and his eyes closed behind his departing Spirit.
There are more experiences I could tell you, but I think I have made my point. In each case, there was something that left the body of the deceased. Something that was there one minute and gone the next. A ghost, or spirit some may say, or maybe just an energy called Life.
Where does Life come from, and where does It go, once the form that it lived in can hold it no more? That is the question I was left to ponder, and my conclusion is this: The only difference between a Living form and a dead one is Life.
From Genesis, we read, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void.” Reason says that if there was a Creator God, there would have to be within him Life, in order to create a Living World. Therefore, either Life existed before there was a God… or God is that Life which has always existed. I have come to believe that the Life that is within each and every one of us, is that Eternal Life and that the best way to relate to Life, is not to worship It… but to Live It! Life was never born, nor will it ever die… it is an Eternal Energy that has no form. That which has form will certainly pass away, but the Life sheltered within that form will continue on throughout Eternity. We were not created for this World… but are in fact its Creator. Let Us rejoice and be glad in it.
Oh, foolish Soul what have you done,
But spent your Life in useless fun,
Selfish greed and arrogant pride,
And who can count the times you lied?
No Savior waits to pardon you,
The Gates to open and let you through,
Your sins forever on display,
In the Book that time will not decay.
What can you do, where can you go,
To find release for your troubled Soul?
If truly sorry for the Life you live,
Let your words this day be “I forgive.”