December 5, 2020



Bess was “really something.”

I heard that a number of times over the course of my visit. Her family loved her, but fully acknowledged that she was her own woman, independent to a fault. She knew what she wanted and usually got it without a lot of fuss or bother. Bess was “really something” and it was of little use arguing with her.

Once, after a stint in a rehab facility where they had a small columbary with birds, she liked it so much that she came home and had one built for herself, with a glass front so she could watch them climbing the branches, feeding, fluttering around. She placed it in her living room, filled it with birds, and spent the rest of her days enjoying them. She set cages in other rooms too — surrounded herself with little winged creatures who would naturally be off somewhere, flying freely in the sky were it not for Bess exerting her loving will over them. The house echoed with their chirping as Bess ruled over her aviary paradise.

Well into her nineties, Bess had outlived her friends. She’d proudly let you know that she was the oldest living member of her church, an old mainline Protestant congregation downtown with one of the most beautiful sanctuaries in the city. Her mom was Baptist and her father Catholic, but her grandfather attended this church. Her parents gave her a choice as to where she would attend and she tried it out with grandpa on a Sunday morning. One look at the glorious altar, appointments, and stained glass, and she knew immediately this was where she wanted to be. The atmosphere was suitably regal for a young princess like her.

When she came into hospice care, she still lived in her home, functioned independently, and asked for help only when she needed it. She wasn’t even sure she needed our care team that much. Most patients see the nurse once or twice a week, but Bess wouldn’t hear of it. Once every two weeks it would be. The social worker and chaplain were lucky if we received permission to come monthly. Not that she wasn’t hospitable, she just had her terms. Our visits were always pleasant. She wasn’t snobby or stand-offish; I think she truly liked people and enjoyed conversation — when she wanted it.

bird-in-a-cageHer daughter didn’t come to stay until the final two weeks. By that time Bess was having trouble breathing and was getting weaker. She feared falling. She wasn’t ready for the bed yet, though. She had a long sofa in her TV room where she and her daughter spent most of their time, near her favorite parrot. They both slept on it at night.

Bess wouldn’t hear of getting a hospital bed. First of all it wasn’t practical. Her tiny cluttered house couldn’t absorb one, and she had no desire to change anything around anyway. No, when it was time, her own bed would work just fine. You got the idea that Bess would know when it was time.

The last time I visited Bess was a few days before she died. Over the weekend she had moved to the bed and it looked like she wasn’t getting out again.

I heard messages on our team voice mail about her decline and called on Monday to schedule a visit. Bess’s daughter, unlike her mother, did not hesitate for a moment in asking me to come. There she was in her twin bed, oxygen tubing draped over her face, looking drawn and tired. She smiled and talked to me in response to my greeting, but it was hard to understand her. I said a prayer asking God to bless her with comfort and peace and to help her family. I encouraged her to rest, and she smiled again and closed her eyes.

The office called and notified me about the death a few days later. I went to the home and met the nurse there, standing over Bess in her bedroom, her daughter and grandchildren at the bedside. We prayed together, then the nurse and I took care of the details, made the phone calls, kept checking on the family to make sure they had what they needed. After awhile, shortly before the care team from the funeral home arrived, we went to the bedroom one last time to see how everyone was doing.

They were talking about Bess, how she was “really something.” Someone commented on the beautiful satin dressing gown she was wearing.

Her daughter perked up. “You know, it was the strangest thing. Just last evening, I was tending to mom and she told me to take her clothes off. So I removed her pajamas and was getting ready to put a clean set on her. But she said no, she wanted me to take everything off of her. So I did and then she said, go to the closet in the spare room and get the green box that’s on the shelf. I retrieved it and inside was this lovely gown, brand new. Mom had me put it on her and then cover her up again.

“Then she looked at me and said, ‘Okay, it’s time. Let’s get on with it.’

“Now, this morning, she’s gone.”

That Bess, she was “really something.”


  1. Beautiful…May the Lord bless and keep her…

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Bess sounds like quite a character.

  3. Chap,
    I’m certain you could say much more about this than I but the Irish refer to that time just before death as the ‘thin times’. There is for some a clarity and a removal of the veil where they can see what the rest of us can’t. Stories abound. I have a few. My grandmother, my friend Wayne. They clearly saw and spoke with people in that great cloud of witnesses beyond my perception. It sounds like things were pretty clear to Bess as she dressed for the occasion. What a mercy, in a way.

  4. an awesome narrative . . . we had two ‘Besses’ in our family, both my father’s sisters, so we were ‘twice Bessed’.

    that people face life, and death, on their own terms is something to admire I suppose, and my aunts most certainly did up until the end . . . Lorraine was strongly a daughter of the faith;

    but aunt Evelyn had found God in the forests and the mountains of northwestern Massachusetts and there she ‘worshiped’ Him on her many journeys to the state parks and the trails and lakes, journeys which she also shared with all of us nieces and nephews . . . treasured memories. She received His gifts of Sun-warmed blue berries and cold spring water with grateful joy.
    Our aunt was closer to God then most of the family gave her credit for. We younger ones had no doubt of it.

  5. I forget where I read this, but I remember somebody once telling of his mom’s last few weeks where she kept stubbornly repeating “We’ve got to get that baby born.” Nobody had a clue what she was talking about, and they all assumed she was sliding into some form of dementia. And then, a few weeks after the funeral, he and his wife found out. New life was entering the world even as his mom was leaving it.

  6. What a beautiful commentary on an extraordinary person, Chaplain Mike!

    The children of the Great Depression have been dying throughout my later lifetime. I think of how much they went through, and how tough they had to be. I sometimes think we will not see their like again.

  7. My roots are in Pentecost, but I like, I really like, this pope!