The Murderer and Me


(c) Shutterstock

Most of my hospice patients were bricklayers and auto executives, teachers and truck drivers.  But the murderer taught me something they couldn’t.

When he comes onto our hospice program, I learn that he went to prison for murder, was released, and then killed another person right away.  He’s been in prison ever since.  Now, dying of cancer, he’s out on the compassionate release program.  The son in a faraway state never lived with him as a child, and now only wants to know when he dies.

A bleak nursing home is the most compassion he’ll get now.

Could I just skip visiting the murderer, I wonder?  The details of his crime are awful, and the staff says he’s still mean and abusive.  What redemption can there be for him in these last few weeks?  Certainly none that I can deliver.

Would he even if I didn’t visit?  Maybe not, but I’ll know I chickened out.

My brain spins into the grandiose.  Perhaps an insightful conversation with me will unlock the past and allow breathtakingly complete repentance, right then and there.

Then my mind lands on terror.  I know exactly what will happen.  I will be his next victim, killed right there in the nursing home, in between rounds.  The next shift will find me and notify my tearful husband.

In the end, the most mundane conviction pushes me in the front door of the nursing home.

You never know where the grace of God can be found.

It belongs to all of us, and perhaps I can be a small channel of it for him, or for the staff caring for him.  Even murderers deserve grace, I keep repeating to stay calm, as I ask where to find him.  “Down at the end of that hallway,” the nurse instructs me.  “Third bed in the room.”

At the end?  Third bed, farthest in?  So far from the door?

Peeking down the hall, it seems darker than usual.  Are some of the lights off?  And where are all the food service aides, nurses, housekeepers and other residents who usually fill the corridor?  Where is everyone?

You never know where the grace of God can be found, I repeat, hoping for courage.

I head down the familiar hallway that has never seemed longer, or darker.  I round the corner, step into the room, and there is the murderer.  All 87 pounds of him, in a t-shirt and a diaper, lying on his bed.

Letting out a shaky breath, I have to laugh.  My image of the murderer, my fears and fantasies, had so taken over that I could hardly see, let alone minister to, the real person.

The murderer reminds me how often we do that to each other, at church or work or in our neighborhoods.  The executive with the Birkin bag must be a shallow workaholic – until she turns out to be a compassionate and dedicated mother, one of the few in her wealthy neighborhood who will draw a difficult line with teenagers.  The retired attorney must be a Republican – until he turns out to be a tireless campaigner for gay rights, his views refashioned by his son’s life.  The father yelling at his daughter in the parking lot must be an abusive lout – until you learn that he’s working two jobs, and is on the edge of exhaustion.  The mother who’s always in the school office must be living through her child – until you know that her child has autism, and her efforts are teaching the whole community about inclusion.

You never know where the grace of God might be found.  It belongs to all of us, even those of us with cluttered heads and trembling hearts.

I don’t know what other redemption the murderer found, but he taught me the power of starting from scratch each time.  In his dying, the murderer reminded me to let each person be a blank, and to start fresh, my over-filled mind empty and ready to see anew.


(Image via Shutterstock.)


  1. Avatar Linda Caudell-Feagan says

    WOW. Just WOW. What a post; what an amazing person you are, Mary Austin!

  2. Oh, Mary, I am so glad I know you! You walked with Leila-Jane and helped her with decisions she had to make. I will try to remember this lesson. -Gay

  3. Thank you, Mary! Why do I need to read The Holy Way when I have you.

  4. Thank God the world has you!

  5. Thanks, Mary. Most of us know we’re supposed to start fresh with each new encounter, with each new day. But sadly, we don’t. I need to read this over and over again well into the future to be reminded.


  6. Avatar Bonita Gardner says

    Such a beautifuuly told reminder. Shared it with both my sons and talked about it. Read it to hubby as we drifted off to sleep. Nothing more needed to be said. Thank you for sharing.

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