Hospice nurse welcomed into the narrative of living and dying

Patient Story

Celia lived in the city neighborhood where she had raised her family. She did not much like the idea of me being her new hospice nurse. Celia was methodical in her routine and aptly believed she had earned the right to divert disruption. Her face was smooth like butter and she had the prettiest smile I had ever seen. “We’ll just see how it goes,” she said.

She had been diagnosed with cancer a few years before. Celia chose to forgo treatment and accepted her illness with dignified sensibility. Her tumor was massive and prohibitively heavy. Still, she commanded a regal presence as she shuffled in her slippers and crisply pressed housecoats. She referred to the tumor as “that darn thing” and generally did not wish to call attention to it. We established a cadence to our visits as we discussed her pain. I quickly learned to earn her trust by arriving when I said I would and accepting a cup of coffee as I did my charting.

At her kitchen table, Celia told me about her childhood in a poor, rural community in the South. One morning, she shared the circumstances of her mother’s death when Celia was just a young girl. She became quietly tearful. “I don’t know why I am telling you all this today, Sugar.” As so often happens with our hospice patients, memories of loves and losses in Celia’s past were nearing the door of her present. We sat in the space of her sorrow and I was humbled to listen to her story. Secretly, I cherished that she would call me “Sugar” from that day on.

On a spring afternoon, the house was buzzing with the much anticipated arrival of our music therapist. Friends, family, and all of her grandchildren were packed into her bedroom to listen. The sunlight illuminated Celia’s face, the room fell silent and the gentle melody washed over us like grace.

By summer, she was declining. Celia passed peacefully in her own bed surrounded by family. I attended the funeral and reception at her house. I listened to stories and saw pictures of a beautiful Celia before “that darn thing.”

I sat at her kitchen table where I had filled her medicine box countless times and my throat burned from missing her. I thanked her children for the honor of knowing their mother and for having the opportunity to be her nurse.

I sat in my car for some time after the funeral, reminding myself of what we all know in hospice. Some days, the work can be mercilessly intense, complex and depleting. Ultimately, it is a paramount privilege to be welcomed into people’s homes and the particular narrative of their living and dying. Sometimes, a kitchen table in a city neighborhood becomes a sacred space you hold onto forever, sweetly. Like sugar.