Between breaths, the stillness in his chest seems to linger with finality. Eugene Lever's only sounds are occasional moans from pain the morphine cannot still. Like an aged, deciduous tree, Lever's body has lost its fullness. His arms and legs have become bare sticks, and details of his life have been swept from memory like fallen leaves.
AIDS has ravaged Lever to the winter of his life. If he is battling to live, it is a silent battle, waged in stillness from within.
Working in shifts at the Carl Bean AIDS Care Center, volunteers of Project Nightlight sit at his side and hold his hand. Some play soft music and meditate or silently pray that he find peace in life or in death.
They know nothing about Lever's past, and of his present they are aware only that he is alone and dying. Some see the photograph above his bed of a young boy smiling and wonder who he is. The words "I love you" are scribbled across the bottom.
They lean close to him and speak words of love, searching for acknowledgment--a slow blink of the eyes, a squeeze of the hand--when Lever is too weak to speak.
Tenuous swells of strength allow him to slowly claw his way up a peak--not high, not wide--but to a point of survival. Three days later, his appetite returns. He asks for food and a cigarette.
Cassandra Christenson, founder of Project Nightlight, loads him into a wheelchair and whisks him outside, where his gaunt body can be touched by sunlight and his feet can touch the grass.
Lever no longer is considered to be "actively dying," a condition that almost all residents at Carl Bean, located in the West Adams area, soon will confront. The hospice's 25 beds are occupied by those who doctors have determined have less than six months to live. Few battle back, regain enough strength to leave for another life chapter, another fight against a vicious disease.
Christenson leans across the side rails of the chair and looks directly into the pallor of Lever's face, his eyes sunk deep into sockets. They are meeting for the first time, and Christenson doesn't know precisely what to say.
With each person, she must find a way to convey the message that she comes to them with love, that life even now--especially now--is precious. Sometimes she speaks with words, sometimes with touch or meditation.
She begins to sing:
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine," then fusses with pillows and blankets, wraps her arms around him and places her cheek against his, feeling his sweaty skin drawn tightly over protruding cheekbones.
"Can I ask you a question?" Christenson asks Lever.
"Yeah," he replies.
"It's really an important question. Did you know you were about ready to die the other day?"
"You were about ready to die."
"I don't know, and now you're back. . . . You were really close to dying. . . . Did you see the light, ever?"
"Sometimes when people get close to dying, they see an incredible light."
Lever doesn't answer. His mind drifts.
"Can I go home?" he asks.
Since 1981, Cassandra Christenson has specialized in comforting the dying, and in 1991 she founded Nightlight so that people would not die alone. With 120 active volunteers and $60 in the bank, Nightlight reaches out to private homes, hospitals and hospices to sit at bedsides or even climb into bed with people near death.
Nightlight volunteers have different beliefs, different faiths but are trained not to impose them on the people they serve. Their training does not include a step-by-step process of what to do. They are told to approach each encounter as empty vessels, not with their own agendas, not to proselytize or exercise their own belief systems but to honor the clients'.
"In general," Christenson says, "we cannot be effective unless we totally honor the people we serve, where they're at, and only respond to life up to the moment of death and never address what goes on afterward. . . . It's all about honoring life, that person's life, not ours."
Once while Christenson was working as a private nurse, she had a patient who didn't believe in God or an afterlife. The man had a love for jazz, and when he awakened from a coma, he described how he had heard wonderful music and was drawn to a group of musicians jamming and whooping it up.
They were talking about a party they were going to, and the man asked if he could go with them. One of the musicians turned to him and said no, he could not, that he must turn back. The man looked into the musician's face and it was Louis Armstrong.
The next thing he knew he was in a hospital room.
It might be jazz, it might be Jesus.
"The bottom line," Christenson says, "is that I don't know what happens when we die."
Many of the volunteers, known as Nightlights, hear about the program through Marianne Williamson's Course on Miracles. Many have lost loved ones to AIDS, but the one thing that binds them, Christenson says, is that, "We all come from a place of love."