I spend Monday mornings at Hospice as a volunteer. When I mention this, people get sort of weird. Some profess they could never do what I do, which is really not thatextraordinary. You just be yourself and reach out to people.
Sometimes they accept and other times they reject and even give you dirty looks. That’s okay it’s their call and for once in my life it has absolutely nothing to do with me. It is completely and utterly about them.
A couple of weeks ago I had “jumper” duty. We are single story operation so nobody was leaping from the window sills. It seems two of our residents had a wanderlust in their final hours of life. In their confused state they took to roaming the halls in their wheelchairs much to the dismay of staff. When I arrived at 7:30 one poor soul had been on the go since 2:00AM and was now in the nurses station for his protection and the on duty’s sanity. I occupied their time for several hours by just talking about everything under the sun. I am always grateful for an audience. It’s what I do.
Point being, you never know what to expect. We have had munchkins visiting Kathy and me for the last two weeks with the last crew leaving Easter Sunday morning. I have to admit I wasn’t totally bright eyed and bushy tailed as I walked through the door for my tour of duty. The nurses told me they had two patients whose families could use some TLC. They had a ways to go in the process and were a bit at sea. I introduced myself and engaged in some small talk to see if they were approachable.
One woman was there with her husband. I could tell right away she got it and as it turns out had been through this before with a previous spouse. As we talked she kept a close eye on her beloved for any signs of discomfort or stress. She told me of their life story and their love was beyond evident. Nothing fancy but as satisfying and fulfilling as two people could get. Just a wonderful couple. Pretty neat.
I had other rounds to make so I told her I would be back in awhile. I went and chatted with an Italian family who had started in Brooklyn. Where else? Dad had been a WW II vet and at 93 his time had come. Everyone was beyond accepting and a little self consciously the room took on an air of a Sunday night dinner with the sedate Vito as the guest of honor. Pass the red and some pasta please. But something that I can’t describe kept me wanting to go back to Room 11. I bade arriverdverci to my paisanos and and moved back down the hall.
When I entered the room again my woman friend was in a chair reading the newspaper. Her husband was on his side and his breaths had become measurably shorter in a relatively short period of time. Not totally unusual but noticeable. We talked of the news and the challenges we all feel even in this horn of plenty. She was a pragmatic optimist not unlike myself.
All of a sudden she stood up and went to her husband’s side as if something was terribly amiss. I sensed it at the exact same instant. He had transitioned in a matter of moments and the end was near. I know this may sound creepy but it isn’t. You are all of a sudden witnessing the end of life’s journey that began so long ago at one’s birth. It really is a celebration of life as we know it.
In a spontaneous moment we started saying prayers. Turned out they were Catholic and the Our Fathers and Holy Marys flowed easily. Not just the monotone recitals we all do but really praying from the heart. “Now and the hour of our death, Amen” became incredibly poignant.
I moved to the back of the room and left her to her thoughts and a cry that had been building for weeks. I remember many years ago when my son Scott was born. In those days the father being in the delivery room was still new. The ob/gyn wanted to meet me to make sure I was not going to my knees during the process. As we talked he related how incredible it was. There are four or five in the birthing room and then all of a sudden there are six. Today I mused there were three of us in this hospice room and all of sudden there were two. The cycle of life was complete.
In my many years of volunteering I have been through that final breath several times. It is always a particularly privileged moment. But this one struck me in such a different way. Usually I have known the patient and his or her family for weeks if not months. We are friends who have shared for awhile. This was like a lightning strike. No time to prepare. Everything off the cuff…and without time for calculation.
What struck me most was the willingness of human beings to open up and to share. To feel our own mortality and vulnerablity. To be human in every sense of the word. In this crazy impersonal world we live in, it was a testament that it could be done. I am incredibly fortunate to have been there. I hope I got this right because it hit me so beautifully. Life is good.Live it and let it happen, my friends.
Ted The Great
Every year approximately 2.6 million pass on in the US. Over 93% are due to natural causes versus death by accident, murder or suicide. Still over 80% choses to die in hospitals as opposed to Hospice or home health care.
No matter the locale there are caregivers. I work one shift a week for a few hours. The dedicated professionals work 12 hours shifts. They really are the angels of mercy and are beyond loving and caring. There is a sign in the nurse’s station in Denver, “Angels Gather Here.” How true.
After I walked that woman to her car I came back in to the nurses and pronounced to the RN and CNA, “We done good, kids!” We sure did.
One of your best, Ted. Thank you. Thank you for being a person who sees and acts on opportunities to make important differences in others’ lives. Thank you for being an inspiration to me.