Phe, Chapter 6: The Landowner

6: The Landowner

I’ve been at a plush hospice house outside Denver for nearly a week. Every room has a picture window with an unobstructed view of the Rockies. Every bed is positioned either next to the window or facing it, allowing the patients to look out onto the mountains. The rooms have no institutional feel to them. The firm that owns this house has decorated each room with antiques and beautiful accents. Today, that includes me: I’m the needlepoint pillow on the overstuffed armchair in the corner.

I could leave. My work has been done for hours but I’m taking some personal time to linger. This has been a particularly beautiful run and I’m not ready to leave this room.

The Landowner is—was—in his nineties. He’s been living in this home for six months now, enjoying the view and the company of his wife and daughter. They’ve been by his side every day, tending to him and reading to him from the New Yorker and his worn copy of Leaves of Grass.

Hospice homes make for the easiest and most beautiful runs. No one working in hospice suffers from any delusions of being a rescuer or a miracle worker. They all know why they’re here and what they are facing. It’s why you find, quite often, the most spiritually grounded and humble doctors, nurses, and staff in hospice homes. On a fundamental level they know they work in one of the thin places of the human world, where the membrane between this physical realm and the eternal is barely intact.

The Landowner danced back and forth across that membrane while I was in the room with him and his family. He could see me. He wasn’t anxious or scared but he wasn’t in a hurry to leave. I have heard humans talk about a window of time when they’re waking up from a night’s sleep. They mention a weird thought or a great idea that came to them right as they were in that space between sleeping and wakefulness. I imagine that is what this week has been like for the Landowner. The hospice setting, because it is relaxed and non-anxious, gives spirits a chance to float in and out of bodies. More than in any other setting, hospice gives souls time to enjoy the thin place between death and the dimension of the departed.

I love watching some souls linger and almost play as they float in and out of their bodies. The moments around death are too sacred and special for words. No human language has succeeded in describing it. I’ve heard the term “baptism” and I think that might come close. After witnessing the violence of the Teenager’s death, this passing comes as a balm to my own spirit.

The Landowner immersed himself in his time between last breaths and new dimensions. At one and the same time it seemed he was ready to be rid of his body but not quite ready to leave his wife and daughter. I wasn’t ready for him to either. Inasmuch as I understand love, this family shared it on a deep and intimate level. The mother and daughter were able to sit for hours on end in silence, but not in any uncomfortable way. It was a silence filled with reconciliation, devotion, and intimacy. They didn’t fill the space with words because they didn’t need to. The space around them was filled with memories and love and hours already lived together.

Once or twice a day, one of the comforting presences would drop in to check on the family. I would spot them out the window, coming across the mountains. They acknowledged me, and then took their post behind the daughter or wife. After an hour or so they would turn to me.

“Hey, Phe. Have they been like this the whole time?”

“Pretty much. I’ve only been here a few days but I heard the nurses saying how faithful and devoted the wife and daughter have been. Apparently they’ve been here every day for months.”

“There doesn’t seem to be much need for me today,” each of them would tell me.

“No,” I would respond, “these two have each other pretty well covered.”

I watched as each comforting presence stayed for a minute or two longer before drifting down the hall to check in other rooms to see if they might be needed by another family or hospice staff member.

Three times during my week the priest came by to see the family and pray over the Landowner. She wore the traditional black shirt with a white tab collar and would fit in with any training class as a new comforting presence. I noticed the Landowner, wife, and daughter all relax and take slightly deeper breaths when she entered. After centuries of only seeing men, I still am surprised by women in black shirts with white collars, similar to adjusting to seeing female doctors. But I like them. The souls of humans are varied and need just as wide a variety of holy people to tend them. 

It was during the priest’s third visit that the Landowner finally let go completely. I think he was waiting for a moment when his family wouldn’t be watching and when there would be a friendly face in the room. The priest and daughter were talking about the view of the mountains and the wife started a story about a funny and nearly disastrous family outing. The Landowner had packed his wife and daughter in their station wagon when the daughter was very small. He had failed to fill the gas tank and the car stalled in the middle of the Rocky Mountain National Park. Apparently a bull moose became a little too fascinated by the car while the family waited for help.

The wife spun the story so richly that I almost missed the Landowner’s last breath. I noticed him rising again from his body, but this time his threads severed completely. I didn’t go to him. Instead, he came to rest beside me and took my hand. We stayed and finished listening to the story.

“My family,” he said, and squeezed my hand. “They made my life a Technicolor masterpiece.”

Just as he turned again to look at his wife, the priest looked at the Landowner. She knew he was gone. She had sensed it only moments after he came to rest by me.

“I think it’s time to get the nurse,” she said to the daughter in a gentle voice. The daughter looked at the Landowner, then stood and went to his side, placing a hand on his chest. She dipped her head then turned to her mother and nodded.

“I’m ready,” the Landowner said as he nearly led me into the next phase of his passage. 

I finished my work and collapsed where I am now. No one noticed one more needlepoint throw pillow in the room and the chair was comfortable and inviting. I sat there, listening to the silence between the mother and the daughter as they tenderly held each other and the Landowner’s hands. The nurse came in to verify his passing and then called the mortuary. The mother and daughter changed the Landowner out of his worn cotton pajamas and into a new pair, ones that still seemed comfortable but were more befitting of a man of his stature. Even in death they were tending to his needs.

All of them have left the room now but I’m not ready. Moments like these get me as close as I have ever been to understanding humans and what love must be for them. For a brief moment I envy them—even the Landowner.

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