One of my colleagues at the hospice where I work in Albuquerque, a social worker, told me this week about her final encounter with one of her favorite patients.
She was an artist for most of her life. Margaret’s walls were filled with her paintings, and the cabinet shelves and corner tables are stacked with her pots and ceramics. In a steady decline for the last few weeks, Margaret’s conversations were no longer altogether coherent and she was not always tracking the way she did before her cancer progressed.
My friend’s last visit with Margaret was a week before her death and for the first 20 or 30 minutes she drifted in and out of sleep and wasn’t talking. Finally, after about an hour, Margaret perked up and appeared to recognize the social worker and it seemed as if she was bothered and needed to talk. With great effort she tried to ask a question. “What happens when …” she began tentatively and hesitated. “What happens when …” and she paused, unable to finish the sentence.
The hospice worker, having been in this field for over a decade, assumed the patient was trying to ask about death, trying to form a query about an end-of-life experience, seeking counsel on what might be on the other side of this life. She was accustomed to these types of encounters with her patients so she readied herself for the dialogue.
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“What happens when …” Margaret started one last time, watching her visitor closely. My friend leaned in to listen intently.
“What happens when you mix red and yellow?”
Surprised by the simplicity of Margaret’s question, she sat back, relaxed, and answered truthfully. “Margaret, I suppose it makes orange.”
There was a pause and then, having heard the response, the patient smiled and nodded, dropping back off to sleep, putting an end to the conversation.
It’s reassuring to me that Margaret’s last concern took her back to her deepest passion, took her back to the language she most clearly understood and participated in – art. It’s lovely that before she died, this woman who has painted brilliant sunsets and earth-toned desert floors, wide blue skies and purple mesas would need to know about red and yellow and orange before she died.
It’s comforting to think what she needed to be reminded of one last time before leaving was what she had seen, what she has made, what she has loved. For this hospice patient, the transition from this world to the next had nothing to with words or analytical explanations or formalized religion. For her, the last matters of the heart, the last question she had to ask, had nothing to do with how most of us think about the spiritual.
Margaret simply wanted to confirm what it is she must have always hoped, that she would die and rise in color.