“I’m done.” “He’s so done.” “I’m done with you.” So much anger, weariness, frustration in this phrase. It’s not a young student brightly proclaiming, “I’m done!” after finishing a math test.
“She’s done,” the nurse says. There is a sense of finality and grief in her voice. She is calling me to be present at the death of a COVID patient. The patient’s husband requests a chaplain. The patient is a 44 year old woman who is on ECMO, which sounds like a friendly Muppet, but it’s not. It’s a machine that acts as her heart and lungs. Her heart is too weak to pump; her lungs too damaged from COVID to oxygenate her blood.
I walk in and introduce myself and the first thing her husband says to me is, “She’s been here for three months. She said she’s done.” I nod and he says again, “She said she’s done and wants to go—now.”
Now. Her teenage daughter arrives this afternoon but this patient cannot wait. Her six year-old is in school. Her teenage son is here showing me pictures of her on his phone. She was vibrant, active, smiling.
I reach for her hand, black and blue from so many needles. She is sedated but conscious. She looks up at me with enormous blue eyes. Her long hair laid out on the pillow, her cheeks a perfect blush pink. She looks so beautiful and healthy. And in that moment, the enormity of her decision hits me. She will be dead within the hour. I am speechless. I finally say, “You have such beautiful blue eyes.”
She just regards me. What a stupid to say! I wish with all my heart I could take back the words. Is she thinking, “Well, I won’t be using them an hour from now?” Or, “I can’t believe that is what you are saying to me.” But that is what women do—we compliment one another on our looks. Because
we are taught that is the most important thing about being a woman. A male chaplain seeing a male patient about to die would never say, “You have such beautiful blue eyes.”
Her husband calls their daughter and puts her on speaker phone. Weeping, her daughter says goodbye, says how much she loves her, that she was a great mom, that she will get to see Jesus and that later they will all be together again. Her son weeps. Her husband strokes her forehead.
I say a prayer of gratitude for the life she has lived, for the way God has loved through her and loved her through others and for the many hands who cared for her.
More sedation medication arrives. “We will make her comfortable,” the nurse says. She is young and speaks in such a soft voice I can hardly hear her. She and the ECMO tech have a secret language of nods and blinks.
He slowly turns down the machine. As the noise subsides, I watch the perfect pink drain out of her cheeks. I have an itchy spot on my chest and I dig my fingernails into the itch. The pain grounds me. Later I see that I have made myself bleed.
“You have such beautiful eyes.”
Now there is absolute silence. Her body gives three last gasps. Honestly. And then she is done.
I tell you this story because anyone who is tired of COVID restrictions: home schooling, video worship, Zoom meetings, mask wearing, isolation; anyone who refuses vaccinations—Well, you just have to decide: are you ready to hear, “I’m done?” Are you ready to watch a loved one die? Are you willing to be so ill that you would leave your child forever?
I told a friend how I felt stupid telling this woman she had such beautiful eyes. My friend said, “It wasn’t like you were commenting on a scarf or a pair of shoes. The eyes are the windows to the soul. You told her that her soul was beautiful.”
I take comfort in that.