On this particular day, the physician who supervised my hospital work told me, “We have to visit a patient in the oncology department, and her condition is very serious. As we walked briskly to her room, he described her briefly: “She’s  a young woman in her forties, married with two teenager daughters. The cancer was discovered four months ago but it was late. It is cancer of the uterus, very metastasized. She is suffering a lot of pain, and I am trying to help her as much as I can. Her mother and mother-in-law spend a lot of time here. Her husband still cannot accept that she will not be cured.

We entered the room, Pearl (not her real name), was lying in her bed.

Her mother-in-law was sitting in a chair near the foot of the bed and her mother entered soon after. Pearl was glad to see the doctor, a pain specialist, since for all patients, he was the “angel” who eased their suffering and treated them with a genuine tenderness and humanity.

The first thing I noticed was her belly - she had the belly of a nine-month pregnant woman…she wore a tight yellow shirt and black shorts. The second thing I noticed was Pearl’s thin face with pale skin and very short hair…and the third thing was her deep dark eyes. You could see the pain in her face. The room was very quiet but I could feel the heaviness in the air…

Dr J.: Hello Pearl, how are you? Tell me about your pain, how did the change in treatment affect you?

Pearl: Yes, it is a little bit better…

Dr J.: Did you think about the possibility to move to the hospice? You talked about it yesterday but it is a difficult decision, you know…

Pearl: I know…I cannot handle the pain at home, and I don't want my daughters to see me suffering this way. The social worker was just here and she explained the procedure to enter the hospice.

The two mothers asked to talk with Dr J. and he invited them to leave the room and talk with him in the corridor.

The two mothers asked to talk with Dr J. and he invited them to leave the room and talk with him in the corridor.

Dr J.: (to Pearl) “Valerie will stay with you…”

Valerie:  Do you have strength to talk with me?

Pearl: Yes…

I took a chair and came to sit close to herand introduced myself.

Valerie: You said before you are checking the possibility of entering a hospice …why?

Pearl: Yes, I don't want to suffer more pain, I’ve had enough. I want some medicine to calm it down right away.

Valerie: You don't see there is any point to continue this pain?

Pearl: Right, I know I won't win against the illness, so why should I suffer…?

Valerie: You also said you don't want to be seen this way?

Pearl: Yes, my daughters, I don’t want them to remember me this way…

Valerie: You wish them to remember you as you were before the illness?

Pearl: Yes, It's hard enough…(I take her hand in my hand)

Valerie: I understand your husband also has a hard time coping…

Pearl: Yes, he always says: don't give up, let's try another treatment, but I know there is no point… when they discovered it was already too late.

Valerie: You are already preparing yourself toward the end?

Pearl: Yes, I know there is no reason to fight. I am not afraid of death, I am afraid of pain. But he doesn't understand, doesn't accept.

Valerie: He doesn't want you to leave him?

Pearl: Yes…

Valerie: I would like to show you something (opening a small wooden box containing ten very different shells). Pick the one you like best …(Pearl chooses one which is like a snail, white with black spots).

What drew you to this one?

Pearl: The spots, each one is slightly different, special...

Valerie: It is beautiful… one of the things I like about seashells is that you cannot see what is inside, you can only imagine what is there… but there is an opening, like a mouth, to take out, to deliver… like in life, there are so many hard things we keep inside instead of releasing them… perhaps it is worth to use your time now to talk about these important things with your husband and your daughters... (silence)

Valerie: Would it be ok if I prayed with you, said a blessing?

Pearl: Oh yes…it's ok…a few days ago my husband even went to some rabbi to get a blessing. (I keep her both hands in my hands, look at her and close my eyes)

Valerie: The One who blessed our fathers, Avraham, Isaac and Yaakov, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Lea, may He bless Perla, and give her strength to cope with the hard pain, and to prepare herself for the separation form her beloved in dignity and peace  – May God bless you and protect you, May God shine His countenance on you and be gracious to you, May God raise his Face toward to you and grant you peace.

Pearl’s eyes were wet…she cried…

Pearl: I am sorry …

Valerie: It is alright, don't be sorry…you can cry…(I hugged her gently and she hugged me back)

Pearl: Thank you…

Valerie: Thank you for sharing yourself with me, I hope we may meet again…

Pearl passed away the following week. I knew she was close to her last days but wasn’t aware it might be so soon… She knew, though, and I felt honored that she gave some of her precious time and energy to me. She opened her heart, and she was ready to pray with me. Her tears were a sign she was truly touched. The words were meaningful to her and somehow allowed her to free herself from the strong image she felt she had to cultivate with others.

I met Pearl only once and only for a short time. I can’t say I knew her, I didn’t even ask about her profession or her background. But our encounter was powerful and struck a deep chord. I hope it also encouraged her to talk openly with her family about death, her wishes for them, and maybe even her blessings to them. Our encounter and especially the short but meaningful prayer remain with me in my pastoral work.

Valerie Stessin, 2009