Hospice..with a side of mystery

4 Mar

I was struck by Danielle LaPorte‘s post today, I can’t help you. Not really. You should click through and read the whole (quick) thing, but here’s the part I liked best:

When you are being of service to other people, you need to leave a lot of room for mystery.

That’s one of those lines that you can easily read, nod your head, and move on. It’s not something that’s too intellectually challenging to wrap your mind around, truly.

It is a different thing to really absorb, though, and to keep top of mind, especially, oh you know, when it’s deep into the second hour, and you’ve shifted several times IN THE LAST MINUTE on this fold-out chair, and caught yourself once or twice going through your shopping list and pulled yourself mentally back to bed-side. And then you’re struck by..well, not to put too fine a point on it, but the ABSOLUTE ABSURDITY of you sitting there, not even able to hold a hand because she’s got them tucked away, and you’re on this damnable folding chair anyway, which isn’t high enough to comfortably reach across the bed to grab onto anything, and anyway, WHAT AM I REALLY DOING HERE, what is the POINT of this??

Then. Then is a good time to go back to the quote.

One thing about hospice volunteering is that we’re not going to draft letters to Thomas Merton wondering how it is we can keep moving forward without seeing much progress.  There is. No. Progress. And our patients die. And that dread fact is an immediately obvious gate-keeper. Hospice volunteers have made their peace with that even before Day One. And our volunteer managers have screened for it. We would have not have arrived bed-side with some murky understanding of what, literally, we are called to do.

However..here on this chair (seriously!  this chair! I’m going to start bringing my own stadium cushion!), we can begin to wonder what it is we’re actually doing. And then that whole mystery thing isn’t so much a little platitude that makes us sit up a little straighter, it’s the only thing that keeps us on that chair.


She was a good old bag!

27 Feb

My first hospice patient – a few years ago now – was a firecracker. The perfect First Patient. She was verbal — hilariously so — and a vibrant, warm, gracious lady. “You know I have cancer, don’t you dear?” she told me on one of my visits. I asked where the cancer was, and she said in her (right) shoulder. Then she said, “And I’m 99, for heaven’s sake!” I told her that shoulder cancer plays no favorites, and she narrowed her eyes at me. Even dry-wits, who are used to being mistaken, are suspicious of other dry-wits.

She told me that she occasionally dreams of dying.  I asked if she could tell me about one of those dreams.  She said she dreamt that she woke up with mud all over her, but then she sat in her rocking chair, rocking, rocking, rocking… I remarked that it sounded peaceful, and she agreed.

Another time, her next-bed roommate interrupted us many times by offering her lipstick and hair-clip and other articles on her dresser (“Do you want this nice small purse?”) which my patient found amusing.  “She’s a good old bag!” she declared to me, with a great big grin.

You should’ve seen her face change when I asked her about the man who’s sweet on her in the group home.  She was obviously delighted with his attention, and saw the humor in the situation (well, she saw humor in everything, actually).  “I only like him as a friend!” she told me every time, and I just squirmed with mirth to hear her constant caveat, beguiled by her belief that I might think differently.

She also told me when she was going. “I’m not going to exercise in the mornings any more,” she announced one day.  Any particular reason, I wondered?  She narrowed her eyes at me again. And the conversation faltered a bit, while I cheerfully hoped she’d be feeling more chipper soon. But I had mischaracterized her statement. She was being prophetic, not conversational. Then she declined gently, and died peacefully over the next week.

She was a terrific first experience for me, as a volunteer. A good ol’ bag. She reflected back to me what I wanted to project during a visit: a little wisdom, a little wit, the obvious relish of a good visit. But mostly she reminded me that there was nothing to “do” really, but show up and receive her, however she was going to be that day. To just sit next to her and rock, as it were.  Rocking, rocking, rocking..

Tales of a hospice volunteer

17 Feb

I’m not sure if it’s a phenomenon that other volunteers experience from time to time, but there have been several times now where a couple of my patients have died on the same day, or within a day or two of each other.  I suppose it’s not overly weird — given the whole nature of the job, and all — but it is startling when it happens. Last week, my two long-ish time patients died a day after each other.  Given that my 3rd patient transitioned off hospice (yippee!) a couple weeks before that, I am momentarily bereft of appointments.

I will really really miss my last patient.  Not as elderly as the others typically are, she had suffered two TBI’s and although she had spoken a few words when I met her maybe 9-10 months ago, she had long since been non-verbal.

She was, however, my best hand-holder, bar none. I called her the Venus Fly-Trap of hand-holders.

If she heard you by her side, her hand was up and out, opening and closing like the carnivorous plant. Once she honed in on you, you were a goner. You were solidly, happily trapped for a good long time — and serious good-luck to you extricating yourself when it was time to move on.

She was so nice to visit. I would cheerfully chat, and just as cheerfully fall silent for long stretches. Sometimes I would tap my finger on her wrist as we held hands, and on most days — after a bit of a delay — she would tap back.

On very rare occasions, I would get a word or a smile. I think her last words to me were maybe a month ago, when I was asking her to squeeze me back when I squeezed her hand. Maybe a good long minute later — I was onto another thought by then, I’m sure — she came out with a high screechy, “I’m trying!” She would crack me up.

I will miss our visits.

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