Share Something Our Readers Wouldn’t know About You.
I did another interview, and this time, the question was – Please share something our readers wouldn’t know about you.
Many years ago, I learned something interesting about myself. In an age where everyone is obsessed with youth, I am comfortable around old people, ill people and people who are dying. It was not always this way. I remember spending the night with my grandparents when I was about 7. My parents were throwing me a surprise party and wanted me out of the way. My grandparents were in their late 70’s, and to me, they seemed ancient. The house was big, empty, scary. I couldn’t wait to get home.
In contrast, when I was in my early 20’s, I attended my first vigil; my aunt was dying of lung cancer. She was at home and almost all of her siblings – seven of them, had come. The house was filled with men and women talking, playing cards… and smoking. I went upstairs to see her – one of her siblings was always with her – and to talk with her. She was in her 60’s, and very frail, but awake and fully present. She had gone to Alaska before her last chemotherapy and I was able to talk to her about that. And I realized that visiting someone so that you can say good-bye isn’t very pleasant for someone dying. But visiting so that you can take their mind off of dying can be a positive experience for both of you.
So, I found myself accompanying loved ones who had a fear of hospitals, and sitting with people who were ill. Talking with them, laughing with them, joking with them, creating an image of who they are at the end that is positive and fits who they are as people, not who they are as they are about to die. I also remember visiting my grandfather when he was in his 90’s, and sitting with him and his wife as she played the piano, and just enjoying their company. He fell and died a few weeks later, and I had the knowledge that I’d had an opportunity to spend time with him. It provided a sense of closure.
Fast forward 15 years later, the cancer in my family became increasingly common, and I found myself determined to spend time with my loved ones before they were gone. I visited my aunt regularly when she had breast cancer. I was in Massachusetts, and she was in Maryland – I drove down about every other month. And then my father contracted lung cancer. I got a transfer to North Carolina, hoping it would be closer – by about two hours – and made the drive about once a month. As the cancer progressed, I got it in my mind that he should come and live with me. Not knowing that he had only a short while to live, my sister and I moved him down to my home in North Carolina, and he and I had 6 very special weeks together. I was just so happy to have him with me, even though he grew more and more frustrated with the failure of his body, and the mini-strokes that caused him to lose his ability to think clearly. We went for drives, we went for walks, we listened to music. We talked. I hugged him a lot. And then in his last hours, my sister and I sat vigil, and sang to him.
At that point, I was determined to spend time with my mother, and left my job to move to Maryland. I couldn’t afford to live near her – I ended up north of Baltimore, and would make the drive to her home outside of DC once, twice, three times a week. We would go to plays, concerts, festivals, and later, just watch movies, or go and sit in the sun to talk. I had the opportunity to be part of her life for 15 years until she died of a stroke when she was 92.
Knowing that I was comfortable in this role, I became a hospice volunteer. Because I was focused on my mother, I couldn’t volunteer often, so I became someone who would do spot visits for respite. I couldn’t care for someone like a nurse aide, but I could talk to them, be a visitor, offer comfort. I will never forget one woman who was bedridden and very god-fearing. She wanted me to read the Bible to her. In my youth, I had Bible classes, and thought that Psalms might comfort her. So, we sat as I read Psalms for a few hours. Me, the devout Buddhist who had given up on Christianity some 30 years ago. The irony made me smile. It showed me how much more important it was to give comfort.
I had to give up my hospice work as I became more involved with my mother. And after she passed away, I got involved with another member of my family – my brother-in-law, also dying. My husband and I moved him into our home, but he got sick frequently and was in and out of the hospital. He was a very disagreeable man who gave the hospital and nursing homes all kinds of difficulties and they would call me, saying that he would only “behave” if I came. So I would come by and talk to him, and put him at ease. And when his days were truly numbered, we brought him home and called for hospice.
My job has me traveling so often that I cannot do volunteer work right now, but being a part of hospice is my intention when I retire. They have been a comfort to my parents and so many others, that it would be my joy to give back.
I have no problem visiting people in the hospital. I can talk to them honestly and often enjoy making them smile and laugh. Back in 2003, my father moved in with me after losing a battle to lung cancer. He only lived for 6 more weeks, and it was a truly meaningful moment in time. Two years later, I moved from North Carolina to Maryland to spend more time with my mother when she was in her 80’s. My husband and I cared for his brother and daughter for 5 months until he died. And I worked as a hospice volunteer for a year, visiting people in nursing homes and providing respite care. When I retire, I plan to go back to being a hospice volunteer. It’s not something that everyone can do.