A Catholic & a Buddhist Walk into a Nursing Home Part I: Pleading For Death

To paraphrase the insane, enormous woman on the reality show about trading wives, I’m not a Christian. I’m also not a Catholic. I’m a Zen Buddhist and have considered myself one for two decades, despite no longer practicing. My wife, however, is both a Christian and a Catholic (Yes, they're Christians, too) and she is also a Eucharistic Minister. What that means is, she takes what Catholics call the “host,” more commonly known as Communion wafers, to those who cannot visit church and participate in the ritual.

Actually, these are people who can’t participate in much of anything because they’re elderly nursing home patients, many of whom are in the throes of various forms of dementia. The Catholic Church is huge on charitable acts to those who are suffering, one of several traits they share with Buddhists. In addition, this particular church is run by Franciscan monks, men like Pope Francis, whose devotion to those in need is both admirable and intense.

Each week, my wife delivers the host to these unfortunate elderly people, and I have been going with her of late to make it easier both logistically and emotionally. Buddha spoke of having compassion for those who cannot escape suffering, and this certainly qualifies.

I’ll be honest: In the beginning, I didn’t quite understand the point beyond maintaining religious commitments to those who belonged to the Catholic Church. Having grown up Protestant, I’d taken Communion in a few Lutheran churches, but its significance, while high, was not as important in those churches as it was in the Protestant churches I attended. I didn’t know that for Catholics, the belief is that these wafers as we call them literally transform into the body of Christ.

I’ll be even more honest: That kinda creeps me out. I’m pretty sure most people who were raised Protestant feel the same way. But that’s not important. What matters is that, for these tragic individuals, it’s a link to their past when they were still young and vital and even aware enough to participate on their own. Watching how they respond to the ritual is proof enough of that.

My previous trips to this particular nursing home were difficult for me; my mother spent a few years in three different ones due to Type 1 Diabetes and complications brought upon by it. She was only in her early fifties and a clinical psychologist, so the staff tended to regard her as a mentor. They also knew I was going to be there too often to pull any shit; not that they would have. It helped that some of them also had crushes on me, I suppose.

By contrast, these people (mostly women) are old and confused and some seem to have been deposited there like expired food waiting to be thrown away for good. One woman, Nettie, expressed her utter loneliness when she said no one ever comes to see her. That brought tears to my eyes, but the most recent trip was a whole different story.

We go from room to room based on a church supplied list.  There are two floors, including a section where special access is required because of the mental state of the patients there. Sometimes we “luck out” and find several of the listed people in the lunch room. Today, as we walked in, my wife spotted two of the women she normally visits.  The first one took Communion like always, graciously and cooperatively.  The next one was a different story.

My wife had to confirm and re-confirm this was the correct person; she didn’t look like the same woman from before.  She seemed older, more withdrawn.  Once her identity was established, my wife asked her if she wanted to take Communion.

“Please!” the woman yelled. “Please!”

“You do want to take Communion?”

“Please!” she repeated. “Please! Please!”

“All right,” my wife replied. “We’ll start with a prayer.”

“Please let me die!” the woman yelled.

My wife’s eyes filled with tears. Mine did, too, and I looked away as the woman kept repeating the phrase. Even during the prayer, she kept saying it. She didn’t want to take the host, either, which is their choice, but my wife couldn’t just walk away. She started telling the woman what a wonderful person she was and how God loved her. The woman stared at her with eyes filled with intense understanding; far too much to be dismissed as someone with Dementia.  She grabbed onto my wife’s hand with all her might and stared into her eyes as the words “wonderful” and “love” and “good” filled the air.

She said it again, this time with less conviction but still enough to show she meant business.  “Please let me die!”

My wife told her she understood.

“No, you don’t!” the woman yelled.

“You’re right, I don’t,” my wife replied. “I only understand that you’re suffering.” She hugged the woman, and the woman leaned her head in.

That was only the beginning of a day filled with sadness, reminders of mortality, and even a few dashes of humor.

(To Be Continued)


Who Am I? said…
This is a well written article. It struck a chord with me because I had a similar experience, only not with a stranger, with a friend. I went to visit the husband of a couple I had known for years . He had been ill a long time with a blood disease which was probably medically induced. I had been told he was giving up.

Anyway, the person I was with asked him if he would like us to say a prayer. He sort of nodded, but instead of saying the prayer with us, I heard him say "Just let me sleep. Why can't you just let me sleep."

I said to him, "It's okay. You can go to sleep now," even though I wasn't sure he was talking to us. He grew very quiet and sort of drifted off so we left.

I found out the next day that he died about an hour after we left, in his sleep. It occurred me some time later that he was praying for death.

That's a hard memory to have of this person who was a very courtly old world type of gentleman. These sort of experiences stay in your head. I don't know any way to prevent them short of staying away from sick people and old people. That doesn't seem like a good option.

Maybe sometimes when we can't do anything else, we can simply be there.

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