A Very Small Candle

Ron Panzer
June 11, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

I've often told my son that if he misbehaves, he will not even know what he has lost, what wonderful gifts or times he would miss, and that he will not know the full price he has paid. I might have chosen to take him to the new movie in town or bought him a new game or taken him to see something he really wanted to see. We might have gone somewhere. It might have been something he would remember for the rest of his life. But if he misbehaves, it doesn't happen. The opportunity is lost forever. Time moves on, never to retrace its steps.

Yet, that kind of message does not always register so well with an 11 year old. Then again, it doesn't register well with the right-to-kill ("assist" to die?) zealots. "Take something away?" "Lose 'precious moments?" they ask? "What are you talking about?" "We are compassionately respecting the patient's right to determine their destiny," they protest. "We are honoring their 'right to privacy' ... "we're respecting their right to make their own decisions." And, when they've done their deed, they say, "he looked so PEACEFUL lying there DEAD." "It just seemed SO right."

There is something incredibly blind about those who don't have the slightest clue what life is about, who go through life bulldozing their way into, through and over others around them. And they are convinced they know SO much better than any of the rest of society! Whether they kill one person or dozens, they believe in what they are doing.

The amazing thing is that these same people who preach about how much they respect the patient's wishes and the patient's right to choose, never lift a finger to protect the rights of those patients who are coerced into death, they do not fight for those who are neglected and abused within health care. They are not exposing the serious understaffing in health care agencies, while at the same moment major health care corporations are raking in billions of dollars in profit. They do nothing to encourage better treatment of the severely disabled. They don't want to. Where is the respect there?

In their minds (and they are sure they think better than the uninformed, "unenlightened" who revere life), they know better. They are absolutely sure of that! It means nothing to them that only God may create life. It means nothing to them that every moment of life reveals a unique opportunity for communication, sharing, loving, and learning. It means nothing to them that you never know what may happen from one moment to the next.

Had President Reagan been killed within health "care," terminally sedated, overdosed or suffocated ("whatever method does the job," they would say), would Nancy, his wife, have had the opportunity to look into his very aware and conscious eyes at the very end and feel that he had come out of the long fog of dementia to share one last loving look, one more time?

How many hospice workers have witnessed a last moment before death, where a patient suddenly said something, or smiled, and everything was transformed. Those last moments are snuffed out forever, stifled, prevented, never to be experienced, never to be remembered, when the right-to-kill zealot hastens the death of the patient, when the patient is terminally sedated inappropriately, when a decision is made to "push" the patient over into death through a massive overdose.

I have listened to the story of one hospice nurse who was horrified by a physician who chose to push a cancer patient, against the patient's wishes, into death through an over-dosage. The patient did not want to take the medications; she wanted to live. She left hospice and lived for another year, grateful for the time with her family and friends.

I will never be able to forget the call I received from an 81 year old woman, a wife and mother, whose husband had just been enrolled into hospice. As she sobbed on the phone, she told me that her husband (who did have cancer) had been walking, talking, eating and drinking when the hospice nurse arrived. The nurse told the family she would give the patient something to help him relax, and she promptly left the home. One hour later, the man was dead. She knew that her husband had been murdered, plain and simple.

I remember a man who was imminently dying and who had great trouble breathing due to fluid building up in his lungs. He had not said anything much at all for more than a week. He had not been sedated (his choice). He had refused strong opioids and his eyes were open throughout. At the very last moment of his life, his last breath, (and his family and two hospice nurses were there with him), he looked straight through us into the distance and smiled the most ecstatic, beautiful smile I've ever seen ... and he died.

Had he been terminally sedated, or overdosed, or suffocated, to prevent suffering, out of the small "compassion" of those who believed they "knew better," (the right-to-kill zealots), nobody would have ever witnessed that smile. The family would never remember that smile. And I would never have been able to share this story with you for you to tell a thousand others, who will tell another thousand others the richness of even one moment in life! I will never forget that man and his last expression on Earth, such a beautiful smile.

I remember a man whose mother was dying, who stood there and told me that he had heard the voice of a long-deceased uncle, telling him that his mother would soon be with the uncle up in heaven. His story was unusual and surprising, and he was having difficulty believing it was real. He said it happened to him two separate times while standing in the kitchen, washing the dishes. There were no trumpets. No "vision." Just hearing his long-deceased uncle telling him his mother would go on to heaven with him.

Was this man hallucinating? Was this real? The man was having great difficulty because, as he said, the voice he heard was as loud and clear as this "real" life in the physical world. And he said he was not at all "a religious man." Was it real? I believe it was, and many hospice workers have been present for numerous other experiences as well. Every experienced hospice worker has a story of something amazing that happened sometime, in some moment before the end. Had this man's mother been hastened to death a week before he had this experience, he would have missed that spiritual experience and lost a lesson that only comes rarely in life. And in his family, everyone would remember the death completely differently.

You know that there are some people who hurt just about everyone they meet, yet never realize it. They believe they are "doing good," "only helping," and perhaps, even "doing great things." Yet, just the same, the bull in the china shop never realizes the damage done when it knocks over racks and racks of the most costly and precious china. People who kill the dying, the severely disabled, the very elderly or not so elderly, and others, ... they really don't know what they are destroying. They don't value what they are destroying. They do not know what has been taken away forever. With a lack of vision, with shortsighted goals, with a very small and shallow "compassion," they bully their way over the lives of countless others, imposing their will and corrupting the very heart of health care. They congratulate themselves on a job "well done." With no imagination, they cannot even conceive of what might have been or happened. And the world is a worse place for every death they have hastened, for every life they have snuffed out before its time.

Hospice can be one of the most admirable areas of service. And many call the hospice workers "angels" for doing what they do to relieve the pain and suffering of the dying. Well, if they are angelic, they might be imagined wearing white robes symbolizing purity of service. Those angels would "do no harm," thereby honoring the Hippocratic Oath which has governed health care for so long. What the purveyors of death have done is to smear those white robes with black tar, a stain that can never be removed for those who have been violated, betrayed and whose loved ones have been taken away through murder.

I imagine a scene from a time before cars or electricity. You are walking along a dirt path up a hill on an urgent mission. As the journey proceeds, night falls. A "friend" had packed your belongings for your trip and chose to give you one small candle, a very small candle. Now, it's dark, so you search through your pack and find the tiny, thin candle provided, and you mutter under your breath. There is nothing to be done. So you light the small candle that you were allowed by your "friend." You proceed up the hill slowly, picking your way on the trail, avoiding as best you can, the rocks and other dangers along the way. You know that you must move forward.

As you move along, you grow angry that you have nothing but this very small candle. You know how much safer you'd be with a larger candle. You wish you had brought a larger candle. And, you worry because you know that you will not reach the end of your journey before the small candle is completely used up.

As the night proceeds, the candle melts down until there is nothing left. You continue, ever so slowly up the hill, seeing almost nothing, hearing strange sounds, not knowing what will come next. You pick your way forward, and sometimes bump into rocks, sometimes trip and fall, sometimes lose the path altogether. Luckily you regain the path again. Suddenly, there is a turn in the path that you never see. You continue straight on, thinking the path goes on and you fall off a cliff that you never saw, never even knew was there. And you die. You never knew what could have been seen at the top of the hill. You never got to know what was there. You never accomplished your mission. You never got to come back. You never lived long enough to experience all that there was up above and ahead of you in your life.

You never experienced the friends you would meet later on in life. You never raised the children you and your future spouse would have. In fact, you never even got married. You are dead.

Your "compassionate" friend "knew" that you would be "just fine" with the small candle. He "knew" that it was "ok" if you died along the way, because you would not have to experience the hardship of the mission, the trials and tribulations that would face you. He "knew" that you would have no more suffering. He "meant well." And after you died, he was right there at the funeral, like the faithful "friend" he forever will believe he was. You can't tell him what you think about his "compassion." You can't tell him why you died. And you can never live through what you missed. And he doesn't know what you missed.

He can't even imagine it. All he knows is that "it was for the best," and that you won't have to suffer in life.

Like I tell my son, every now and then, "you will never know what you are missing if you misbehave." And those who snuff out the last precious moments of life never know what might have happened in that time. They don't allow themselves to imagine what good might have come out of allowing a death in its own natural timing. They have no idea. They have no clue. They don't know what they are doing, really.

Though our lives are filled with hardship, challenges, and without a doubt, pain, through that suffering an inner purpose is recognized and understood by many. There is an essential ingredient of life that transcends any difficulties we may face; it is the evolution of a soul moving through this life in expression, and then returns back into the Hand that created it.

Those who love deeply, those who are not afraid to bear the sacred "burden" of caring for others, understand that there is more to life than the physical and that the inner person appreciates and thrives on that give and take of love. A physician who sews up a wound is gratified seeing the patient smile and give unspeakable thanks. A nurse who bathes or assists a dependent patient feels purpose in doing what is sometimes disagreeable, knowing she brings dignity to the one she serves. The social worker, the counselor, the volunteers who spend time with the family and patients in hospice know that simply "being there" is enough to bring much that is inexpressibly rich to those they serve.

Like a torch held high, guiding the way, caregivers never allow their patients to feel abandoned and alone. If the patient stumbles, they raise them up and help them along the way again. They travel along with the patient, but they cannot travel for the patient. They work tirelessly to help at every step of the way, offering a supportive hand, a reassuring word, the comfort of a loving gaze. They struggle with the effort, the demands and the challenges encountered. Their compassion is like a never-ending river of love that soothes and supports the fellow traveler through life. Such compassion never fails to shed light on the path for their patient. And for that, the hospice workers have been called angels.

These angels are like guides along the path, but they do not end the journey. They do not bring a very small candle to the job. They know that the job is not complete, till the last goodbye is made, the last kiss given, the last note written, the last loving glance directed at a loved one, the last tears shed and the last smile smiled.