There I was, sitting at his bedside.
This was a different kind of patient than those I normally see. He has been homeless. He has been in prison, convicted of a crime that disturbs me, one for which I can find little sympathy in my heart. I don’t know any details about his law-breaking, and have been told it was a one-time affair. Nevertheless, I find it hard to block it out of my mind when approaching him.
When I first met this man, he was living in a flea-infested motel without a dollar to his name. I walked up to him and introduced myself and he said there had just been a fire upstairs and that he could not wait to get out of there. People with suspicious looks on their faces and time on their hands were hanging around the surrounding motel room doors and corridors casting glances our way. Who knows what they were talking about, or what they thought of someone like me pulling up. It was not the most comfortable setting.
This new patient, however, was friendly enough and good at conversation. He’d spent time in a downtown mission but hated the rules and despised even more the pervasive stench of tobacco that wafted from those who shared his dorm room. He had enough trouble breathing, he said, he didn’t need to inhale that rank air all night every night. He claimed he never had problems with smoking, drinking, or doing drugs. But he was estranged from his family and wanted nothing to do with them (I’ll never know their perspective). I didn’t get a clear timeline of his work, travels, prison time, or health problems. He did confess that he had little use for religion, without explaining further. So I gave him my normal spiel — a chaplain comes to be a friend and support first, and is also available should you want to discuss any spiritual concerns.
I left him that day wondering how this was going to work out. It is not normal practice to admit hospice patients who have no caregiver or place to live in which care can be provided. This guy, like many of the street-wise, was somewhat charming, a good talker, a survivor. He knew how to procure what he needed and was used to getting his way. Now he was facing that season of life when “others will…lead you where you don’t want to go.” I could see the potential for major problems.
However, one of our gifted and dedicated hospice team members found a place for him that provides homes for indigent hospice patients. Our team goes in and visits, and volunteers in the home look after him and help him with his daily needs.
Today I came and sat at his bedside. Our patient had experienced a change in condition. He was close to entering the stage we call “actively dying.” He was lethargic, opening his eyes but fading in and out, and was not coherent verbally. There I sat, looking at him. Wondering.
“How little I know about this man!” I thought. I know enough that I’ve made some judgments about him, and they’re not very kind. I wouldn’t trust him any further than I can spit. I am tempted to consider him as a lost cause, a waster of life, an ingrate who frittered away whatever gifts God gave him. A loser. Look at him now — here in his last days or maybe hours — totally dependent on the care and generosity of others, no family around, no friends coming to visit him, no record of achievement or accomplishment (that I know of) to look back on with satisfaction. When he dies, few will mourn his passing, and some will likely rejoice.
“Stop!” I tell myself. I don’t really know this man. I’ve heard so little of his story and know nothing about the context of his narrative. What assurance do I have that any of my assumptions are accurate? What right do I have to talk in definitive terms about a fellow human being, a neighbor, when in reality I’m virtually a stranger? Besides, it is not my job to pass judgment on him. I am here to show kindness, to offer comfort, to encourage peace of mind, heart, body, and spirit.
Like it or not, I make such judgments every day, a thousand times a day. Most of the time, I am not even aware I’m doing it. I peg others in their place and assume a certain divine verdict has been passed.
As I rose to leave the room, I didn’t feel so well. A human life was slipping away and I was keeping score.