Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Thank you Thank you Thank you

photo: tifforelie

I was sitting in a fluorescent lit conference room behind a long table watching the Director of our hospice program laugh out loud. Every so often you meet a person who captivates you by the simple fact of their oddity. Our director is an enigma to me, a strange combination of a comedic Jackie Chan and the gentle Dali Lama.
Tall and lean with a little boy hair-cut, he talks fast with a distinct accent and instantly puts people at ease with his jokes about his love of desserts. In a world that is dominated by death, he is a walking advertisement for joy.

On this day he was describing the process of dying at a monthly seminar and despite the ominous white board at the front of the room, filled with the hand-drawn graphs signaling the direction of each of our future deaths, his delivery was one of exuberance.

Honestly, who does this? Who laughs and blurts out things like, “What’s wrong with talking about death?!’
“We should ALLLLL be talking about it!”

And it’s not just his delivery, the guy believes this, in fact, he lives it. He has probably presided at more death beds in his life than I could possibly imagine and on this day, he is explaining the intricate signs that we volunteers should recognize during our visits with our hospice patients.
Since I have already had two patients die I am utterly fascinated by this lecture and yes, there is even a pang of disappointment.

To be completely honest, I had these wonderful visions of helping dying people write their enlightened good-byes when I signed up for this gig. I expected to be a helpful story-teller, to be welcomed by wise old souls who wanted to use me as a vessel to carry their messages.

I was going to be that person who helped them share their poignant last words with family and friends. WRONG.

So far, I had experienced nothing close.

Instead, I had been shocked by the prevalence of dementia I had seen and the absolute inability or desire of any dying patient so far to tell their personal story, or contemplate the saying of real good-byes, despite their physical deterioration.

As I gazed over the four graphs of the death process I felt deflated, even dumb.
“Generally, people die the way they lived,” our Director was saying in response to my question about death bed enlightenment.

He was smiling with twinkling eye as he continued,

“All those dramatic death bed scenes showing people delivering last minute words they never said before, the stuff we see in the movies?  Nah, that’s Hollywood! Most people remain pretty much who they were in their life. Angry in life? Angry at the end. No big changes on the death bed. Not usually.”
I continued to listen and let his words sink in when suddenly I got my answer.

The real reason I went to this lecture on this day.

From the front of the conference room the Director is animated and happily launching into one of his stories. He is talking in a loud, energetic voice about a recent conversation he had with his high school son who is also one of the program volunteers.

His son was complaining about his patient assignment, a patient I assumed from his description might be in the throes of dementia.

“Dad,” he says to our Director. “It’s the same thing every week. I’m doing absolutely nothing for her, all she does the whole hour is say, Thank you Thank you Thank you.

And the Director—his Dad- responds back,

“What-ya-mean you’re not doing anything?! You’re giving her someone to say, ‘Thank you’ to!”

And laughter fills the room and the last words I really remember were ones about the dignity of each person no matter how they might appear to us, and no matter what our judgments might be about them.
For a second I felt my face flush, jolted by Life’s prim reminder that “Hey—it’s not always about you, ya know.”
And then the nagging thought that, sigh, I know nothing.

Which isn’t bad. Having one of those ‘I know nothing’ moments actually feels refreshing, a reminder to keep my beginner’s mind; and I like to think it's the universe nudging me to beware of that cushy, old self-importance that occasionally sneaks up on me.
I don’t know what you’ll make of all this.

But for me, this felt like an eye-blinking peek at the truth. An afternoon which left me with the idea that maybe life isn’t so complicated after all. In the end –no matter how educated or successful or talented or fancy-pants-important we think we are, and no matter how lofty our life lessons we want to impart on others might be, maybe the truth is as simple as this:
In the end it’s our kindness that really matters.

Day 2 -my one little thing project

I'm happy to share with these friends:
The Scoop #307
Inspire Me Tuesday


R's Rue said...

Thank you.

Susan Nowell @ My Place to Yours said...

Leslie, these are powerful thoughts you’ve shared. Thank you for the role you have taken on. The lesson you learned (and shared here) will serve you very well in your work. My brother-in-law is a chaplain. His career was spent ministering to terminally ill children and their families.. Thank God there are people who are equipped to do that! Since retirement, he’s been a hospice chaplain. When his (and my husband’s) mother went into hospice five years ago, I got to see him and his co-workers in action. Walking with someone on the final steps of the life journey is an amazing gift, and I was so blessed to learn from them. I blogged about the experience as we waited—and waited—for Frances to die. (Those posts are in my December 2012 archives if you ever want to read my in-the-moment reflections.) Thank you for being that giver of kindness to your neighbors in their last days.

Karen said...

My favorite part of this story is that people die pretty much the way they lived. That gives me hope that I can die with grace and humor. :-) I appreciate your willingness to take on something as important and formidable as being a hospice nurse. My aunt had the nicest nurses who gave her hospice care and we are forever appreciative.

Carla from The River said...

Thank you Leslie, wow,what a great post. I have to say the part of this that will stick with me is, that people die pretty much the way they live. WOW! Powerful!

La Contessa said...

My Mother's last words on November 10,2017 were" HELP ME UP!"
She so wanted to get OUT of the BED!
Or was she talking to GOD?
My Mother was not a religious person...........
I took it as a DOUBLE MEANING!

NO STORIES will be shared in those last days is my feeling, but my Mother never did tell stories either!She did tell me when I was young how she had a pet pig.............and NOW I HAVE A PET PIG and couldn't imagine my day without HIM!


Unknown said...

This post hits pretty close to home for me, Leslie, having been at the bedside of my 93-year-old father-in-law as he passed away last month. He died with 5 family members surrounding him, all holding onto him as he breathed his last breath. Just the month before we had been in the same hospital as our first grandson was born. The circle of life feels so profound to me, especially right now.

Though dementia made my father-in-law forget most details of life events, it also allowed him to forget his grief at losing Margie, it allowed him to smile through almost everything and to express his gratefulness and thanks in every situation. We were so fortunate to have him just down the street for his final couple of years. I agree that people are pretty much the same--sometimes even sweeter in our case -- as they make this profound passage.

Thank you for sharing your story on this in your, as always, eloquent way.
xx, Heather

Unknown said...

I year ago I was at the death bed of my sister who was 57 years old. Eighteen months earlier I was at the death bed of my oldest brother who suffered dementia at the age of 63. I don't expect my 89 year old mother to survive 2018. I would never have guessed that I would be at anyone's death bed but it was a privilege to be there for my siblings. My sister and I were very close. We had a long history of lengthy conversations exploring our feelings and understandings on many topics. Shortly after her passing, I felt that I had done her a great disservice by not talking about what she was feeling or thinking in great depth as we had everything else in our lives. Then I realized that NOTHING was remotely as important as the few words we did speak. I Love You. It's the only thing that matters in the end. Hospice was so very helpful to us all in the last days of their lives. Thank you for your service in this valuable program. You always leave me with food for thought as my sister did. Thank you.

cindy hattersley design said...

I am preparing a post on the recent death of my father...this is so timely...I am going to link back when I get the courage to proceed. Your posts are always so touching Leslie. You are such a gifted writer.

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