The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

By John Mathis

Being an oncology nurse is like being in the Peace Corps. It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love. No matter what discord I felt in my personal circumstances, it paled in comparison to the trials and tribulations surrounding me from 7 p.m. to 7 .a.m. three nights a week. I was surrounded by such bravery, determination, and surrender that it humbled me. To share in their sacred space was a privilege that I shall remember always.

As I was making my midnight rounds one night, I entered my patient’s room. The darkened room was backlit only by the street lights below. As my eyes adjusted, I noticed a man sitting at the foot of his wife’s bed. Well into her 80s, the cancer had distilled this lovely woman into 90 pounds of faithful determination and pain. I was here to address the latter. In return, I would be given the former.

As my eyes adjusted, I could make out her husband. His dress shirt reflected the distress he had been under since his vigil had commenced. His white hair was in disarray as much as his life appeared to be. I then realized he was massaging her feet and softly singing church hymns to her.

I froze. I did not want to intrude into this sacred space that was before me. This was one of the purest demonstrations of love and devotion I have ever witnessed. And although there must have been thousands of similar moments before this night, there would be very few moments between them moving forward.

My patient opened her eyes, gave me the biggest smile, and invited me in to perform my duties. I made some small talk but was ruminating over the love and devotion that still encompassed them. If anything, it was more palpable and enveloping. It was a blessing to be in their presence. With my duties complete, I thanked them, apologized for the intrusion, and made a beeline for the door.

“I hear you used to sing a little bit,” she said.

I replied that I did many years ago, but that I returned to school to be a nurse. The world seemed to have more people who were sick than appreciated opera. With a mortgage, family, and student loans, it seemed the prudent thing to do. Much later in life I would realize I had traded one opera for another.

“I’d really like to hear you sing,” she stated.

My nursing experience to that point had been limited but my motto was this: If it was in my power to give, I gave. So, I sang a very soft version of How Great Thou Art for them. This song had meaning for me as I sang it at my father’s funeral a few years earlier. It had been his favorite.

So, with my song completed, I headed to the door again.

“John, do you think God will let us keep her until Christmas,” asked the husband.

I froze again. Singing a hymn in a dark room is one thing; assisting a minister during a dark night of the soul is quite another.

“Well, her labs indicate that she is holding her own, but I feel that her Oncologist would be better suited to answer that question,” I replied.

Even as the words fell from my mouth, I could see his expression glaze over. He had heard this medical speak before so I continued without a pause.

“But you are asking me to peer into the mind of the Creator…to know His will and to be able to offer you some solace.”

His gaze cleared immediately so I continued.

“I also know that as a minister, you have had many people come to you and ask you the same question. I am not a minister. Any answer I can give you would be pure speculation. What I can tell you is that the love I see between the two of you is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. To see that love, to feel that warmth surely is a sign of God’s love and how it manifested between the two of you. There are people who live their entire lives and never feel the way that you feel for each other. God grants us only so much time in this playground before we have to return home. As long as we have lessons to teach or learn, then we know our time is not yet finished. You both have taught me a lesson here tonight. So, I think you both will be here for quite some time.”

With tear-streaked cheeks in the muted light, he whispered another question.
“She’s been with me for so many years. What should I do?”

I sat down next to him, put my hand upon his and offered a suggestion.

“Before you were a minister, you were a husband. I can tell you are a devoted and loving husband with fierce determination. You have fought hard for her to live with dignity. At some point though, you will have to fight just as hard for her to leave with dignity. I don’t know when that will be but when it does, you will have no regrets.”

He slid his arm around my neck and gave me a tearful hug. As I imagined a reiki symbol in my mind to promote his healing, I felt her hand on my other arm. This synergistic moment of love among three injured souls was healing for everyone. Amidst the tears came laughter and more hugs.

There was a healing in that hospital room that night and it had very little to do with the medication I had brought with me. I left the room a very different person than when I went in. I learned that no matter the illness, state of mind, or station in life, we all have access to the divine. We only need to take the time from the comic opera of our lives and invite it into our hearts.

The next time I worked, my loving couple had left and returned to their home. I silently wished them well. Another patient had occupied the room and the cycle would begin again.

Time passed and I accepted another job. As my exit interview drew to a close, my manager stated that this hospital floor was unlike most. There was usually some event that left an imprint on you. She asked me for mine. I told her of the story of me singing to a couple and the love that each demonstrated for the other. She suddenly got up, went to her file cabinet, pulled out a handwritten letter and gave it to me.

To whom it may concern,
My mom was a patient here and the care she received was exceptional. I especially want to recognize the male nurse who sang to my parents one night. My parents have known each other since grade school and have never been apart. Once she got sick, the pressures of her illness and his ministerial duties were too much. He surrendered his ministry to me and focused entirely on her getting better either by medicine or miracle. When that did not happen, he lost faith in both God and his ability to help her. The nurse told him that he saw how much he loved her and that he should devote himself to her by protecting her dignity – first in living and finally, in dying. They spoke highly of him and recounted their story at our Christmas service. Please let him know what a difference he made in their lives. Please tell him she made it through Christmas. Mom died the week before Easter.

Nursing, marriage, life…the toughest jobs you’ll ever love.

John Mathis is an award winning bass-baritone vocalist, author, nurse, pharmaceutical researcher, corporate trainer, reiki master, and paranormal investigator. He has survived a coma, a near death experience, bankruptcy, divorce, welfare, and the death of his last family member—all within the last 7 years. John’s hobbies include writing, carpentry, biking, and combining reiki and astral projection. Contact John at or visit

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