Heather came to Brooklyn after high school, when she was nineteen, more than thirty years ago. She had planned to go to college to study English literature and become a teacher—she loved poetry, she loved T. S. Eliot, she loved C. S. Lewis—but when she prayed about this she got a sense that God was telling her to go into nursing instead. She was reading the Bible, 1 Thessalonians, and came across the verse “But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children.” She said to God, Nursing? Lord, I never really thought of nursing. But she discovered that it suited her. Normally, a graduating nurse went into medical-surgical work—that was where the prestige, the difficulty, and the excitement were—but she went instead into home care. She wanted to care for her patients in a personal way, rather than racing from one task to another, one limb to the next—inserting an I.V. here, drawing blood there, scarcely noticing whose vein she was puncturing or whose arm she was holding…

People react differently to a death. Some cry, some are calm. Some are frightened to be left alone with a body. Some fear that the body may come back to life. Wives sometimes throw themselves on the body, weeping and grasping it, especially when the couple have been married forty, fifty, sixty years. “The Bible says, And two shall become one,” Heather says. “It’s a wrenching that happens, a tearing, like a garment that’s being pulled apart.” But fairly often a former spouse is taking care of the patient, because there is no one else to do it, and that person may not feel too much.

When the time seems right, Heather begins the postmortem rituals. She shines a flashlight into the patient’s eyes to see that the pupils no longer constrict, and, if they do not, she closes the eyelids. She checks the pulse at the wrist and neck. She listens to the chest, and looks at the hands to see if they have changed color. She asks the family if there are people they need to call—other relatives, a priest, the funeral home—and if they aren’t ready to do it she offers to do it for them. She phones the hospice doctor to confirm the time of death, and the doctor writes up the death certificate. It is illegal to transfer medications from one patient to another, so she goes to the patient’s fridge and retrieves any leftover drugs and destroys them, with bleach, or coffee, or dirt.

From the New Yorker >>>

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