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Where There is Despair, Hope

December 22, 2020 by

It is lonely in my cinderblock apartment when I return home from the hospice ward. After a long day I carry a jumble of images that demand time and solitude to unravel in my mind and heart. I long for the happy banter of company, but with COVID lockdown in place, we are all alone. Isolated from one another. Locked in with our own challenges and fears, hopes and dreams.

On my windowsill is a picture of a rough-hewn feeding trough filled with coarse hay. Some limp and tattered rags lie in the hay. There is muck on the floor. I can imagine the smell of manure rising in the night-time chill. But my eyes are drawn to the manger, which is illumined by the purest light. God himself, stripped of his heavenly glory, became one of us. He has been here. He knows, and he understands.

HCEmbedPhotograph by Gino Santa Maria

I recognize the scene. I’ve just come from there. Not really, of course – but in a way, I have. The crudeness strikes me in its stark simplicity, but there’s something even more familiar about it: the loneliness.

How many of us stop to think of the loneliness of the manger, and that of the cross? None of us knows how Christ’s birth truly took place, but we know there was no room for him: “. . . there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). I’ve heard these words since childhood, but only now do I truly begin to grasp how much that must have hurt. Attended only by angels and lowly creatures, the Lord of heaven and earth made his entrance into our world.

With COVID raging in our area, our patients are not allowed even the joy of a picture hung on their wall to brighten their final days. The rooms are stripped of all familiar items people normally bring to the hospice to ease their passage from this world to the next. Visiting has been cut back to the bare minimum. “Infection control” is the modus operandi that shapes everything now. And so I find myself at the bedside of my dying patients alone, with not a flower nor a photograph to brighten the room.

There are several patients on my ward actively dying. I know one of them well. You could almost rejoice that he’s finally dying; life has become a living hell for him of late, with one leg amputated and the other decaying on him painfully. Sedated, he’s peaceful now, but my heart bleeds to see him lying alone in a darkened and empty room, his life-force slowly ebbing out. I turn on the bedside lamp and pull up a chair beside him. Gently I stroke his hair, remind him who I am, and take up my vigil at his side. His hand lies limp on the bed linen, so I’m able to stroke his arm from time to time as I softly hum a litany of soothing Christmas lullabies. I’m not supposed to sing, but what with a mask and no one else in the room, I see no harm in humming. He is dying anyway. And he’s had everything stripped from him now.

A dying soul craves human contact. I know because I see the subtle response when I sit at their side and take their hands in mine.

His eyes flicker slightly. He can no longer move. If it weren’t for the intermittent breaths that rise and fall, one would think he was already dead. “Once in Royal David’s City” I begin to quietly hum. Taking me by surprise, a raspy sound comes from his throat. He knows this song. And he wants to tell me he hears. So I ask him, “You know that song, don’t you?” Again he clears his throat. “You rest and be at peace,” I tell him, “and I will quietly sing for you.” An hour passes. We are alone. The nurses bustle in other rooms, tending to patients whose systems are still functional. But my dying patient has moved beyond the realm of physical nourishment and bodily functions. His organs are shutting down and he requires nothing but the comfort and reassurance of another human soul, prayerfully watching with him as he traverses the valley of the shadow. I sense the presence of angels in the room. We’re enveloped in peace. The apneic gaps lengthen. There are fewer breaths when he breathes. It won’t be long now.

There’s a sound at the door as his son enters the room. He takes his place at his father’s side, weeping. He curses a God he says he doesn’t believe in. “What kind of God would punish my father like this?” he wants to know. It is just ten years, he tells me, since his mother died an agonizing death in this hospice from cancer. “Never let them tell you death is peaceful!” he declares, “It’s a lie.” He has already told me that he does not believe in anything after death. “Once we’re done breathing our last, we are food for worms,” he confided, a deep bitterness evident in his voice. “I cannot embark on a discussion of the human soul with you,” he said. “For me, there is no such thing.” The words hang like a dark cloud in the room. Looking at my patient’s broken body I have no response for this son’s pain except my presence and my silent prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, Hope!” Suddenly, the image of Christ in Gethsemane floods my mind and heart, and I think, “It was for souls such as these that you sweated blood.”

I shudder to think how heavy the weight of our sins must have been – the unbelief, the rejection, and the coldness of heart that Jesus bore for us. Lonely, like the coldness of the manger. And yet in him is the power to restore all hearts, no matter how hurt, how angry.

Back home in my little apartment, I light a candle in my window. It is a statement of hope. Of faith, light, and love. God’s promises will be fulfilled, because Jesus was born!

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About the author

Rebekah Domer

Rebekah Domer

Since Rebekah’s upbringing at the Woodcrest Bruderhof in New York, life has taken her on many diverse assignments, from the...

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