Generally, when people find out I’m a psychiatric nurse, they open up and tell me all their problems or run away and hide. Jon was different. He took great pleasure in teasing me about my occupation. We met each other while I was doing research for a book project. He was a gentle man in his early 50s with a bawdy sense of humor and a gentle, kind demeanor.
After arriving from my long trip to his hometown in Ohio, he allowed me to invade his office, disrupt his routine, and pour over his files in my endless quest for information. A private man by nature, he didn’t talk much about his personal life except when it came to his teenage son, Parker. When Jon talked about Parker, his dark brown eyes shimmered with a father’s pride.
Jon shared he was a single parent and that Parker had Asperger’s Disorder, a developmental disorder considered to be a higher functioning level of autism. Even though raising his son without a mother was a challenge, it was clear that Parker was the center of Jon’s life. One day he combed his fingers though his thick, wavy red hair and pointing out his gray hairs said, “See these? Parker put them there.” Leaning back in his chair he laughed adding, “and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” When his laughter subsided, his gaze dropped down to his desk and he sighed, “If only to be young again. There’s so much more I would have done.” Back then, I didn’t understand the sudden change in his mood. When I returned home from my trip, a mutual friend told me that thoughts of Parker weren’t the only thing on his mind. Jon had a secret—he had cancer and he was dying.
After our initial meeting, Jon and I continued to work on the project over the Internet. I sent daily e-mails with more questions and Jon would write back everyday with the answers. I knew Parker screened all the e-mails sent to their home so one day I sent a letter with the heading: PARKER, THIS ONE’S FOR YOU. It was a quick note just to say hi. I added that his dad told me many admirable things about him so I was sure he must be a nice young man. That night when I returned home from work I found his response. He said his dad told him I was a nurse and a nice lady, too. We quickly became pen pals and every night when I came home from work I looked forward to finding two letters from their household, one from Jon and the other from Parker.
Time passed and while Jon’s health faded, Parker’s letters became more distraught. One night at work, I checked in with my husband at home during my break. He said Parker had just called, in tears, looking for me. Jon had been taken from work by ambulance to their local hospital. Parker said his dad was in a coma and that he wanted to talk to me right away. I wondered how he had gotten my unlisted phone number. Though we had become fast friends through our letters, we had never met face-to-face, and I knew that children with Asperger’s Disorder generally have difficulty reaching out to others. Excusing myself from the unit, I took a deep breath and called Parker at home. The phone rang just once before a frantic voice answered, “Hello, please help me!”
Parker had found my phone number in his father’s address book. Crying, Parker said, “Nurses are good people to talk to. Have you seen anyone die before? They want me to be there when my dad dies and I’m scared.” We talked about death being a part of life and what a beautiful thing it can be when someone is suffering as much as his father was. “What should I talk about,” he asked. “Will he be able to hear me?” I shared that hearing was the last sense we lose before death. I advised him to say what was in his heart. Whether he wanted to talk about school or how scared he was, I knew how much his father loved him and I said, “There isn’t anything you can’t tell your dad.”
Several days later, Parker called me at home and told me his father had died. He said that some of his father’s family had stepped out of the hospital room to get a cup of coffee and that he had been alone with his dad when he passed away. Parker said, “I remembered what you said. I held his hand and told him it was okay to die, and I said goodbye. It wasn’t scary. I really miss him.” Jon had been there the day Parker was born and took his first breath. Now Parker had been there the day Jon took his last. The circle of life was complete.
Parker and I still write to each other and we talk to each other on the phone every week. We may not understand why at the time, but everything does happen for a reason. Jon and Parker showed me why I became a nurse.