Hospice volunteering is the most honest work I’ve ever done. Pain and death terrify me, but what made it OK was that by the time I got there with my bag of plastic gloves and Grisham novels,* pain was medicated to the gills and death was a done deal. Hospice doesn’t send a volunteer until the patient is into the last 3-6 months, so the only goal remaining is to help give that person a comfortable, dignified death on his or her own terms. The peach-pit/blood recycling/energy healing wonder treatments are off the table, and the family — who probably hasn’t left the house in days — just needs a bit of relief.
Hospice is midwifing someone out of the world instead of into it. You help someone check things off on her last list and make sure all the lights are turned off before she locks the door. Dying, done right, is a project. It’s work. Dying people look still and quiet because they’re very busy in the eye of the storm, thinking and reviewing as the eternal Footman picks up their coats. This doesn’t mean they’re always wrestling with some profound epiphany, though. People get stuck on the oddest things — their older sisters didn’t ask them to be maid of honor in 1952; the sun is fading their wall art; this is the wrong kind of yogurt! Go back to the store and get the kind with the fruit mixed in!
My first patient, Elaine, was 58 but looked 80. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Elaine’s thing was to take the oxygen plugs out of her nostrils, turn her emaciated body away from the oxygen tank, and take a big drag off an unfiltered Camel. Her other thing was to try and save my soul. She was a Southern Baptist in the South, and she really wanted me to find a nice man. I think I reminded her of her youngest daughter, who lived in Atlanta with a “lady roommate.” They were estranged. At that time, my own mother hadn’t spoken to me in several years, so I knew the daughter had her own side of the story. I tried to get them to talk. No dice. Elaine had a snaggletoothed cat and a DVD of “The Passion of the Christ.” She wanted me to read the Aramaic-to-English subtitles out loud, but I kept putting her off. We watched “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” instead.
My last patient, Sheila, reminded me so much of my mother that I dreaded my shifts. I loved her. She’d sold almost everything she owned to pay for the care facility, so all her possessions fit in one room. The detritus of her life, reduced to a few clothes hanging in a closet. A TV. Some framed photos. But she had a truckload of letters and cards from her children, siblings, former co-workers, friends, her mother. Sheila was crazy about anything sweet, so I’d bring cookies and cake — all the stuff I was baking that my girlfriend wouldn’t eat. Elaine had to be hand-fed carefully, so she wouldn’t aspirate anything and develop pneumonia. While she ate, I held the fork and talked about my long, agonizing breakup and about my mother (who by this time hadn’t spoken to me in five years). One night, after fighting a snowstorm for an hour on my way to her, I started to cry. She put her hand on my head. We stayed like that awhile. “I promise you, your mother loves you,” she said.
Sheila’s brain tumor meant that she saw weird stuff. Eating dinner one night, she said, “That looks like Cher’s hair.”
“What does?” I asked, looking around.
“That,” she said, pointing to the long white window curtain by the bed, beyond which moved the unceasing traffic of Avenue Road. “Look how big it is. White. Like Cher’s hair; like she had it that one time.”
A few minutes went by. She looked at the plate with its slender lone cheesecake slice and said, “Is that a grasshopper? On the plate, there?”
She sounded so sure, I actually checked. “Nope, just cheesecake. Your perceptions are really cool, though. Like a cracked-out club kid at 4 a.m.”
She closed her eyes. “I have an interesting head…full of…items.” She paused. “I hear people coming down the hall. They have Portuguese accents. That’s a good sign.”
After dinner one December night, I put on some Christmas music. The first track was called El Tutu; full of delicate harp-y arpeggios like a handful of coins tossed in the air.
“What would you wear, dancing to this?” Sheila asked, fingering the sleeve of my wool sweater. She did that a lot. Textures fascinated her more every time I visited; as her sight and hearing went, the feel of things remained. “It should be something silver. Something floaty.”
“Did you like to dance, before you got sick?”
“Ohh, yes,” she said. “I was like a dervish. And I know I’ll dance again.”
*Also plastic. But Hospice patients love John Grisham; don’t ask me why.