When I worked as a hospice nurse, end-of-life care gave me insight into how the most hurtful relationships can mend, even up to the minutes before death sets in.
Miracles happen when a person is dying.
The superficial falls away; not only the material parts of life, but our resentment, mistakes, hate, and betrayal becomes unimportant. What becomes important is who we are when we leave this world, and what the people in our life really mean to us.
I was blessed to watch as entire lifetimes of pain transformed into forgiveness. Every bit of hurt healed between people when they make peace with one another, themselves, and the universe.
A majority of people never see someone who’s at the end of life. Most people don’t witness the special time for the dying and their loved ones without being personally involved.
I was outside the drama of personal involvement, and from this third person perspective, I witnessed the miracle of forgiveness.
Some of these people had a terrible life by circumstance. Most others created their misery. I watched these healing stories of the dying and their families in real time.
There’s one story that stands out to me.
After twenty years, I still think about this patient of mine and his family. This story below is 100% true as I remember it, except for their names.
I once took care of a man, whom I’ll call Bill. He was dying of cancer.
Bill was an inflexible man who was very particular about how he approached life, with his rigid thoughts and attitudes. You couldn’t change his mind, you couldn’t even approach him with a different idea than what he already had in his head.
Ruth, his caregiver and wife of over forty years, was the complete opposite. She was kind, loving, and willing to change her course if it pleased her husband. She knew her husband’s personality was off-putting and loved him anyway. She took immaculate care of Bill while he was dying, and was the go-between for me when I needed to approach him with information that he’d rather not hear.
Bill often made choices that caused more hardship for him and his wife than was necessary. He was a proud man and wanted to believe he could still do simple things on his own (such as taking a shower), when he clearly could not. If I suggested he needed more help, I didn’t approach Bill. Instead, I talked to Ruth about how she could make caring for him easier on both of them.
As the disease slowly ate away at him, he spent most of his time in his bedroom upstairs. At first, Ruth could get him down the stairs and to the kitchen table for a meal. However, as time went on, he became too weak and remained in his room. After that, Ruth continued to take diligent care of care of him, walking up and down the stairs several times a day. She was a sweet woman and a loyal wife who deeply loved her husband.
Regardless of Ruth’s grace, Bill was so rigid, his hateful ways created a rift with his daughter, Sally.
One day I did my house call and passed a man who was outside mowing the lawn. I waved at him as I passed, he smiled and waved back. I didn’t think much other than this man was hired to care for the yard.
As I walked in the door, I was greeted by Ruth and ushered inside. Bill was sleeping upstairs.
“Did you meet Terrell?” she asked.
“Who?” I said.
“The man outside working on our lawn. He’s our son-in-law,” she said. “But please don’t mention to Bill that he’s here.” Then she told me their story.
You see, their daughter Sally married a black man. She and her husband, Terrell, had been married for years and had a couple of children together.
Bill didn’t like who Sally chose for a partner. He hated Terrell for only one reason: because Terrell was black.
Although Bill couldn’t control who his daughter married, he could control his relationship with Terrell. Bill didn’t attend their wedding, and would not allow Terrell to step inside his home.
For years, Bill pretended that Sally wasn’t married at all.
On the other hand, Ruth adored Terrell. She spent as much time as she was able with her daughter, son-in-law, and her grandchildren. Since Terrell wasn’t allowed in the house, Ruth usually went to visit at their home, or meet for somewhere for the day. During holidays, Ruth would come over for a short time to visit with her parents, then return to her family.
Sally did what she could to maintain her relationship with her father. She was beyond heartbroken, but she loved her dad. He considered her marriage as an act of rebellion. He couldn’t fathom his daughter in an interracial marriage.
Sally and Terrell had a normal marriage with their ups and downs, but they’d been married for years, and both lived with the realization they’d be shunned as a black man and a white woman married with children. Sally knew her father wouldn’t like it, but she never realized he’d carry the grudge for so long. She thought her father’s love for her would overcome his prejudice, especially after he really sat down and got to know Terrell.
She was wrong. Bill never took the time to sit and have a conversation with his son-in-law.
I didn’t know much more about Terrell, except that regardless of the misplaced hate Bill had for him, Terrell still came over and took care of their yard. He couldn’t come in for a drink of water — Ruth came out with drinks for him — or to use the restroom. He only ever stayed long enough to take care of their yard, because he knew Bill couldn’t do it anymore.
This went on for months. As Bill got weaker, Sally and Terrell came over more often. Sally helped her mom with chores inside the house, and Terrell did chores outside the house. Once I chatted briefly with Sally as I was arriving and she was leaving. I mentioned how much she and Terrell helped her parents, and she said, “I do it for Mom, not for my dad.”
One day, I came to visit and as I was walking up the stairs to their front door, Ruth opened the door with a smile on her face.
“Bill’s sleeping upstairs,” she said. This was becoming more common, he never came down stairs anymore and he spent most of his time sleeping.
I sat down with Ruth and started going over Bill’s medications, counting and reordering whatever he was running low on. Then Ruth placed her hand on mine.
“A miracle happened yesterday,” she told me. My ears perked up, because it wasn’t the first time I’d heard this from one of my patient’s family members. Thoughts raced through my mind: Did someone see an angel? Experience one of their loved ones who’d already died? Was Bill getting closer and starting to talk to people who weren’t there? All of these situations I’d heard so many times from others, I believe it to be true.
I sat silent and listened to Ruth tell me about the miracle her family experienced.
The day before, Bill had been agitated. He was mostly bedbound by that time, and he wasn’t able to get comfortable. Most of the morning he was fidgeting in his bed, and snapping at his wife.
Finally he said, “Ruth, call Sally for me.” Ruth dialed the phone and gave it to him. Bill talked with his daughter, and then asked her the one thing that none of them would ever have believed.
Bill asked Sally to come over with her family; Terrell and her two children.
When Sally and her family came over, Sally walked in to the house while Terrell and the girls stayed in the car. She walked to her dad’s room and he asked, “Where are Terrell and the girls?”
Sally and Ruth looked at each other, speechless. “They’re in the car, dad,” Sally replied.
“Well, bring Terrell up here, I need to talk to him,” he said.
Terrell hesitantly went into the house and made his way upstairs to Bill’s room. “Terrell,” Bill said. “Close that door behind you.” And for the next hour and forty-five minutes, Terrell remained in that room, alone with Bill.
During their time together, Bill apologized for all of the years he’d shunned Terrell. He cried and told Terrell that he wished he could have taken it all back welcomed him in as his son-in-law. He thanked Terrell for being such a good husband to his daughter.
Bill was at the end of his life and there were no more chances for him. But as long as he was alive, he still had time. It wasn’t too late for him to give his family some peace and happiness. He took his last chance to apologize and make amends. From that day Bill wanted Terrell to know that he was welcome in their home and into their family.
Terrell visited Bill a few more times before Bill died. They talked about Terrell’s life and the family he made with Sally. Terrell also made amends with his dislike towards Bill. Both men healed themselves and each other with their newly found relationship.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was a beautiful step Bill took towards amending the hurt he caused for so many years. When Bill died, his entire family was in the house; his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. He left this world a better man, and he spent his last days expressing gratitude.
The time I spent doing hospice work showed me that we all have a limited amount of time on this earth. When we think our time is unlimited, we tend to go on with grudges, hurts, and pain. But when death faces us, all those petty constructs in our mind, they fall away and we see what’s turly important in life. It is never too late to make amends with the people you’ve hurt, at least while you are both alive.