The Waltz: Death as a Gift and Teacher
by Laura Anne White
Frail hands resting like hinges
Locked into my shoulder bones
Her face was flaky,
The hair singed from portions of her head
Blue eyes blinked
Big bright balls inside a small face
On a frame smaller still
A tiny stack of bones,
Draped with skin,
And a little fabric atop
Covered the wasting beneath
And we waltzed,
But really swayed
Just swayed, just there
She and I and the sterile light
And I wondered
If she felt like crying
Because I did.
There is a very specific patient encounter many nurses can attest to. A call light illuminates, signaling the need for assistance. You enter the patient’s room. This person tells you they want to stand up for one reason or another. Though they feel confident they can do it, some obscure instinct whispers, telling you they will need you. Perhaps more than you realize.
You square yourself with them, knees nearly kissing theirs. I’m here if you need me, you say, perhaps patting a shoulder to show them where their hand may rest for support. You place your own hands under their armpits, using your knees to bend, and 1-2-3, they stand.
Perhaps their legs tremble, they blink their tired eyes with dizziness, or exhale with an oh in sudden recognition of their own weakness. They grip your shoulders and the withered body meets your own – the full-body embrace – and the two of you do a sort of slow dance over to the chair, back to the bed, or simply stand there holding one another, usually lacking the awareness that that is precisely what you are doing.
And sometimes, they begin to cry. Human contact allows a type of release singular to itself. And as a nurse, just holding this life within your arms, this complex life your mind does not know the specifics of, your heart beats heavier.
I work on an adult oncology and hospice unit, and these moments are not rare. For me, these encounters make it impossible to separate myself from the intimacy of what we do here, the responsibility of waltzing with those who face death.
How regularly we ignore our need to be held, in a physical way or otherwise, in the every day, chaotic detail that typifies each of our lives. However, when you are dying, or terribly ill, or disease inhabits your body in a way intelligent and established healthcare providers can neither understand nor explain to you, this basic human necessity cannot be overlooked.
It’s a ruthless brand of clarity.
We live in a culture that often prompts us to undervalue the silent hello of eye contact, the connectivity of a smile, or the warmth of a quick hug. I would not go as far to say we do this on purpose; our minds are simply clouded with our isolated, well-intended busyness.
The past year has solidified my belief in our profound need to belong, our desire to feel safe, and to feel like our life matters. The work the staff on our unit is doing is meaningful in ways that evade terminology.
There is a quiet, internal gratitude fostered through intimate dealings with those plagued by harrowing and often terminal illness, and with their loved ones.
Many of our patients die, as we all inevitably do. Death makes no allowance for prowess, politics, religion, wealth, interests, education, race, morals, or any of the other designations we use to place a rift between ourselves and another human being. The finality of death pays no mind to how loved, how hated, how cared for, or how neglected a person is when it comes to gather them.
We fail to ruminate on this glaring reality—that we are all dying at this exact moment—when vexed by the driver riding our bumper, by the waiter who does not refill our water enough, by the telemarketer who calls again.
All of these people we find irritating are ultimately going to meet death. People with families and loved ones, fond memories and painful ones. Just like us.
When I remind myself that every single being I encounter is making their way, however gradually, toward this outcome, it is uncomplicated to engage my compassion and respect. The ending of life takes many things from us – those we love, security, feelings of safety, happiness, and a strand of countless other sources of contentment and wellbeing.
Death also has its gifts, if I may be brash enough to phrase them as such. When we consider the implications of this finality, it offers us gifts like reverence, contemplation, and unconditional regard for our fellow man.
Death makes no exceptions for those it takes. It does not play favorites or hold prejudices. It does not care how kind, self-consumed, dedicated, intelligent, honest, indolent, fearful, joyful, or accomplished you are. It simply has its way. I must remind myself of this fact regularly.
Each of us survives, indirectly, on the breath of every other being we come into contact with – as well as those we never meet. We are allowed the gift of breathing a bit of their life. This sustains us as we walk to work, as we pass someone in the grocery store, when the line at the pharmacy is very long and we have many important things to do, when we are going to be late and it will affect other people.
May we emulate death in our interactions with others—holding no prerequisite for those we deem worthy of our respect and patience, those deserving of our time and attention. Let us make no exceptions.
Death spares no one. And observing this makes kindness markedly uncomplicated. Because most simply: we are all dying.
Note: Personal opinions of the author are not a reflection of Mayo Clinic.
About the Author
Laura Anne White is a registered nurse at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Unwilling to deem herself a left or right brain, she seeks to capture the art and science of human lives through writing. She is a graduate of the University of Texas.