Spiritual Care Counselor Bette Birnbaum is often moved to poetry by her experiences with families in hospice. Here is one of her recent reflections:


Joe’s Bible is always nearby. It’s either resting in the bookshelf behind his recliner, or lying open on the table in front of him, or waiting on the nightstand next to his bed. He hasn’t been able to hold the book or turn the pages for a long time. He can’t reach for it, but he still keeps it close.

I read aloud from Joe’s Bible every time I visit.

We perform the same ritual. I ask him what he wants to hear. He grunts invariably, “Matthew. From the beginning.”

As I thumb to Matthew’s Gospel, I notice Joe’s scribbles overwriting multiple pages—his illness-inflected efforts to highlight key passages and jot reflections in the margins.

I say, “I write in my Bible, too.” His eyes beam.

I start to read: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Invariably, a couple of verses in, Joe grunts again. But now he is forceful. And louder. He has pushed his chest slightly forward to get my attention. “Psalm 139,” he says. “It saved me.”

Since we’ve been through this drill before, I already have my finger in the page. I flip right to it, and begin.

We read that God knows Joe’s sitting down and standing up, Joe’s walking and reclining, and the very words on Joe’s tongue. We read that God fashioned Joe in his mother’s womb and that Joe, like all of God’s works, is awesomely and wondrously made. The sounds of Joe’s sister-in-law hustling and bustling in the kitchen, and his brother-in-law rustling at his desk, fade back. Even the insistent blare of Fox News recedes, and soon it’s just the three of us. Just Joe, and me, and the Book.

“God, You hedge me before and behind,” I read. Joe radiates bliss. He holds this truth, and it holds him. For a transcendent moment, I catch a glimpse of faith.

This is the same moment when our ritual becomes valent, when our miraculous pas-de-deux, even though Joe cannot move, makes an unrehearsed pirouette. As Joe’s health grows poorer, our ballet grows richer. Which is why it never feels routine to dance with Joe and his Book.