Last week I sat by the deathbed of a 105-year-old man.
His daughter, herself in her 70s and unable to visit from across the country, was on the phone.
This had been the routine ever since his nursing facility reopened to hospice providers. I’d visit him in his room in the personal care unit, where due to his age and late-stage dementia, he was usually sleeping. I’d then call his daughter on my cell phone, wake him up, and hold the phone to his ear so his daughter could talk to him. He would usually listen to her for about ten or fifteen minutes before he simply became too tired and went back to sleep.
But last week, I was told by the medical team that he was nearing the end of his life. This meant that my visit with him might be my last. What’s more, as his light faded, he would certainly be less able to pay attention to his daughter’s voice.
When I arrived in his room, it became apparent to me that he would not be roused from his sleep. (I later learned he had just received a dose of morphine.) On the phone, I explained to the daughter that I had not been able to wake him. “That’s okay… I’ve already told him all that I needed to,” she said. “So what should we do? I’ll follow your lead.”
I was suddenly taken aback by a feeling of weighty responsibility. Unsure of what to say, I fumbled my words and awkwardly offered to read him some of his favorite poetry.
She graciously reminded me of two things: one, that he would probably not be able to hear, and two, that he was a Quaker.
“In the Quaker faith there is a strong emphasis on silence. I think it might be good for you to just sit with him in attentive quiet.”
“That would be perfect,” I stammered. “Would you like to join us for a little while? I can set my phone down next to him.”
“Okay, that would be good. Then I’ll tell you when I need to go.”
We sat in silence, listening only to the low hum of the oxygen machine. After about ten minutes she said calmly, “Okay, Klaas. I think I’m going to go. Thank you for this.” I thanked her for allowing me to facilitate the call and said goodbye.
I sat with her father for another twenty minutes, during which I paid attention only to his body and my body. He was a respected doctor and family man, eighty years my senior. His hands lay relaxed on his lap as he breathed deeply with his belly.
I realized that my breath had been shallow since I entered the facility and that my shoulders were tense, too. I do this often—shorten my breath and clench my muscles—when I’m nervous or scared.
I tried to imitate his breathing. Not the rate, but the motion. I let my belly—a couple inches bigger than it used to be—take up the space it needed, and breathed deeply so that it rose and sank. I unclenched my muscles and let my hands fall motionless in my lap.
For the first time in many weeks, maybe months, I felt peace.
This winter I experienced the most intense feelings of emptiness of my life so far. I continue to meet these feelings with anxiety, tension, avoidance, and fantasies of escape. This has done evident damage to my self-esteem, relationships, and work.
But sitting there with him, as he breathed effortlessly and approached death with an unbothered peace, I stopped fighting the silence.
Finally, I left the room without saying a word. He died a few hours later.
I am grateful that he lived a life that made space for silence, and I’m grateful that our paths crossed at all. I will never forget those last moments we spent together. May he rest in peace.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. He has lived on the East Coast since then. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.