An unusual but important weekly ritual, rarely seen in other hospice organizations, takes place every Friday morning at Yolo Hospice. Staff gather in a community room in our building on Galileo Court to light a candle in memory of each recently deceased patient. One by one, as each candle lights, a story is shared about the person being remembered.
The poignancy of this early-day custom is palpable. It makes clear that each one of the organization’s 500 annual patients are not seen or treated as patients. They are seen and cared for as people.
During the ceremony, a bit of color and texture from each person’s life is shared. Through story, Yolo Hospice staff members bring light to the reality that each person is valuable and continues to matter even though we can’t see or touch them anymore. New members of the team quickly learn that the beneficiaries of our care include lawyers, farmers, students, musicians, bankers, physicians, check-out clerks, stay-at-home moms, and the homeless. Some have had full and fascinating lives while others had lives that were greatly challenged or too short. The common thread, however, is that in their final days, and regardless of each person’s history or set of circumstances, they deserved and received dignity, respect, and compassion. Each was assigned a team of end-of-life Sherpas.
Recently, it was during one of these Friday morning ceremonies that I first learned of a patient by the name of Opal; a 97-year-old who earned the nickname Checkers from our Chaplain Penny Adams. When Penny first inquired about Opal’s faith beliefs, she bluntly stated, “I’m Christian and I don’t want to talk about it!” Penny then gently asked, “Is there anything else you would like to talk about?” Opal thought for a moment and then asked “Do you play checkers?” Penny thought it was an odd question but decided to roll with it.
Opal opened up and told Penny that she had been a checker champion in her younger years. She never lost a game. Her checkerboard prowess kept her family and friends from playing with her, and she was now aching to get back into the game. So Penny decided to bring Opal a checkerboard. They began to meet twice a week to play and engage in a life review. As the months passed, the visits became the highlights of Opal’s week.
One time, when Penny arrived to Opal’s house she was unusually quiet. It was clear that Opal had something on her mind. She finally broke the silence by asking Penny, “Would you do my funeral?” Penny told her she would be honored, and asked her if she had any suggestions of what to include.
For the next 9 months, the two women talked about spirituality, God and the afterlife. Opal asked Penny what her death would feel like, if she would be in pain when she died, what heaven would be like, and if God would accept her or let her into heaven. So over games of checkers Penny and Opal reviewed the tenets of each of their beliefs and disbeliefs. Quoting from the Book of Romans, Penny assured her that “Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life . . . neither our fears today nor our worries about tomorrow . . . no power in the sky above or in the earth below – indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God.”
A few days before Opal died, she was in her hospital bed and barely responsive. But when Penny called out her name, she smiled and said, “No checkers today, just sit here on my bed and visit.” So Penny nestled on the side of the bed and held her hand, assuring her that her time was near but that she could stay with us until she was ready to cross over. Together they prayed that God would help her to know the peace that passes all understanding and that the creator would guide her safely home. When it was time for Penny to go, she reached down and gave Opal a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “I will see you tomorrow or I will see you on the other side,” she said. “I love you.”
The next morning when Penny arrived, Opal’s daughter-in-law rushed to the door. “Come quick,” she said, “Opal is going right now.” Penny hurried into the house and gently grabbed Opal’s wrist. Her pulse was faint and fast. She leaned over and whispered in her ear. “I’m here. You can go now if you want to.” And at that instance Opal drew her last breath.
Penny cried with the family, and had the privilege of helping the hospice aide bathe and dress Opal for the mortuary. When she spotted Opal’s checker board under the end table she decided, with the family’s permission, to send it with her to be cremated. A few weeks later, on a cold but sunny Saturday, Penny had the privilege of conducting Opal’s graveside funeral service. As she concluded, she looked up to the sky and said, “Get the checker tournament set up. I will be there soon and this time, I just might beat you.”