Saying goodbye is always hard, especially when you don’t know it’s a final goodbye.
Monday afternoon. I’d just finished facilitating My Life Story, my weekly group for seniors, now in its ninth year.
As she walked out the door, Mary paused. “Oh, Uma. I don’t know if you’ve heard…Eileen has been moved to hospice care.”
I felt the middle of my chest cave in. Eileen was one of my favorite elders in the community. She always had a kind word for the grumpiest person, found ways to help everyone, and told the best stories, dipping into her well of wisdom.
Eileen’s cancer had returned and none of the drug treatments were working. When I’d stopped by her apartment to check on her a month ago she said, “I’m getting more tired. The side-effects seem to be worse than the cancer itself.” I commiserated with her and told her to call me, anytime she needed to talk.
Ever since, Eileen had been in and out of hospital and rehab so I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit with her.
“I thought you might want to go see her,” Mary added, before she shuffled out of the room.
Fifteen minutes later, I found myself in the hospice facility where Eileen was being cared for. When I got to her bedside, Eileen managed a thin but radiant smile. “Hi Uma.” She remembered me. This is not something I take for granted after five years in hospice and hundreds of volunteer visits. As emaciated as she was, Eileen had her wits about her. Her grace and elegance shone through.
“This is the lady who runs a lovely discussion group in our building,” she introduced me to her sister.
As we chatted I realized that Eileen was in a state of complete acceptance. She was exhausted and more than ready to surrender her life to its natural timeline.
I told her how much we missed having her in group. “Oh, I’m going home this evening,” she said.
For a moment I wondered if she was confusing the storyline — but her sister’s response confirmed that it was true. She wanted to die in her apartment in senior living, free from the tubes and bags of her hospital room.
“Will you come see me? I’d love to talk,” she asked.
“I sure will,” I promised.
Shortly, a nurse walked in and started to prep her for a bath so I said goodbye and left.
The following Monday was Labor Day. I’d committed to facilitating the group despite the holiday, but I drove home right after because my daughter was home for the weekend. When I walked into our meeting room a week later, I heard the news. “Eileen died over the weekend,” the seniors told me.
Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.
I’d promised to go see her. And now I never would. I felt the crushing weight of disappointment and guilt. It took me a few minutes and the comfort my beloved seniors offered me to remind myself that I’d had the opportunity to say goodbye, no matter how brief.
But a reminder never hurts. The sands of time are dribbling away. Time waits for nothing and no one. So if there’s a phone call you need to make, do it NOW. If there’s someone you need to visit, do it TODAY. If there’s something kind you need to say to someone, do it SOON. Unfinished business is what weighs us down.
What one action are you willing to commit to — so you don’t put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today?