My brother died yesterday, alone with a nurse, in the Covid ICU unit at a Maui Hospital. We had been expecting it with his condition deteriorating over the past week or so, but his wife, Peggy–just out of quarantine–was getting things ready at their home so he could smell the sea and feel the sun one more time. He asked her to get his three sisters on the phone so he could say goodbye, and for over two hours, the three of us, Peggy, and their daughter Dee, were on the phone together talking to him and to one another. He was coherent early in the first hour to tell us how lucky he was to have us for sisters, and we were all able to share our love for him. Erin, the tenderest of nurses, helped us understand what was happening to him, how his face looked, and said it seemed to calm him as he listened to us speaking with one another. So, we shared stories, lots of laughs, pickle recipes. We said a prayer together with the chaplain when she came into his room. We kept remarking to each other that now we’d become one of those Covid families we’ve been reading about–our loved one dying alone, while we talked to them on the phone. And yet, it was a beautiful experience of family to be on that conference call together, and when Erin told us we’d heard his last breath, and said she was so sorry we couldn’t be there, and that he had to be with a stranger, she did not feel like a stranger. She was just so kind.
After we hung up, I walked out on the north shore of the lake to be with the “pale gold light of a November sky” as Albert Camus wrote. Except for a family of Canada Geese resting in the water, I was alone in the sunset. I knew it had been an extraordinary experience– to be together on that phone call as my brother left this earth–to share our love before he was gone. I kept thinking about Erin, hoping when she went home, after that long day tending to my brother and to us, that she was met with a loving family of her own. We learned this morning that she was a traveling nurse…I hope she at least had a phone call. She was so kind.
KINDNESS by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.