“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.” –Oscar Wilde.
Every Tuesday from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., I feel at peace. The people around me do, too. We sit together in a conference room and talk as old friends, sharing the latest updates in our lives. We frequently smile, share stories, praise French Vanilla coffee from the office’s Keurig machine, and end up having a lot more fun than we ever imagined. However, our updates aren’t about recent family reunions, best summer reads, or delicious recipes to try. Instead, we talk about death. We think about it, we discuss it, and we learn to help dying people deal with this inevitable reality. Welcome to hospice volunteer training.
I admire naivety, innocence, and the power of dreams. What I hadn’t imagined that I would admire was the intensity and simultaneous reward of what I had previously perceived as simply a volunteering experience. As a child, I grew up learning that one of the greatest wrongs is to journey through life without helping others in whatever way possible. Admittedly, I did join hospice for more selfish reasons; I needed an excuse to escape campus and see the real world with fresh eyes. Plus, I wanted to burn some energy with a new project; I like putting my energy to the test and keeping procrastination at bay. I realize now that hospice has taught me more than I will ever be able to contribute back to its patients. Fleeting life has never looked sweeter.
In a simplified way, hospice means end-of-life care for patients given a terminal diagnosis of less than six months to live. It’s not a death sentence, nor an “It was great knowing you, Life, but I’m tired of living” sort of bargain. Hospice means helping people live as fully and comfortably as possible for their last few months before death. As a volunteer, my primary job is to listen to patients and try to fulfill any of their requests, which range from engaging in hours of conversation to cooking meals to simply holding patients’ hands. The task sounded simple enough…or so I thought.
After the first afternoon of training, I waited until everyone from my volunteer group had left before breaking down into salty tears in the parking lot. I am not afraid of death; truly, I’m not. I know that many people have a tremendous fear of “the end,” but I wholeheartedly believe that death is only the beginning. What saddened me that first day was realizing that I was useless against a patient’s fight with death. As a part of the hospice team, I would not be able to help “cure” anything. I cried that first day because I finally realized that the same patients who would make me their friend and confidante would die before I would.
I don’t cry anymore, though, because I love hospice; it makes me respect and honor death as an entity, because death means letting go when the time comes to let go. I realize now that hospice tries to make the last moments of life some of the most comfortable ones. Hospice makes me bite my tongue when I’m tempted to begin my rant against how busy I am. I’m still healthy and alive, still blessed with the gift of energy. If the word “blessed” makes anyone feel uncomfortable, then “lucky” serves as an equal substitute. Hospice reminds me that life is about fulfillment, meaning, and purpose.
My hospice volunteer training has almost come to an end; I have only one more session to attend before home care visits begin, and I’m already going to miss the training. I got to meet and work with some of the most extraordinary people from all walks of life, united under the common goal of giving back to the community. While I’ve learned so many wonderful things at Vassar, they don’t compare to the knowledge of how to handle death and the process of dying. My first home care visit comes after first semester, and I can hardly wait. If fulfillment means getting that choked feeling in the back of my throat as I help a young mother with end-stage cancer bake cookies with her kids, so be it. If it means holding bedside vigil with a dying woman, I would do it a hundred times over. If it means just stroking an elderly man’s hand as he tries to tell a story and grows too tired to finish his sentence, I fully accept the responsibility. I already know that as these patients gracefully leave life, they’ll teach me how to live.
I’m not trying to imply that the moral of my story is to find the next dying person and make scrapbooks with them. I just hope that we all take the time to appreciate the small and simple things in life, and that we help others who will soon not have a life while we still do. I know we all have the capacity to try and live life considerately. I’ll leave you lovely readers with this: A day may seem dismal, despondent, and full of stress… until one puts everything in perspective. Would you want to make that worrisome day your last?
Hospice teaches me to be like this happy little fellow…except the last time I checked, I wasn’t all cute and green. But why not?