I’d just cracked open the crusty top of the pot pie with my spoon when the hospice volunteer coordinator slid a piece of paper across the restaurant table toward me. She did it almost apologetically.
“I know you’re pretty full up with the people you’re visiting,” she said, “but when I saw this one, I thought of you.”
Many of you know I’m a hospice volunteer. I visit several patients each week, just sit down and chat about stuff. I do it primarily for me – it’s who I am, how I’m wired, and I suspect that I get a hell of a lot more out of it than the people whom I visit. They share some of the most poignant and difficult and joyful moments with me. And their final days.
How lucky am I? Very.
But as with all things, there’s a limit. Only so many people that you can see in your spare time. The coordinator knows this. But there was something about this one …
I picked up the medical info form and read it. T (I can’t use his full name because of privacy laws) is in his 80s. He’s a chaplain and did a lot of volunteer work in his retirement. He and his wife had things they wanted to do together, family to visit, places to explore. Nothing was holding them back. He was still in great shape – still lifted weights regularly.
That was the first thing I noticed when, two days later, I went inside his nursing home room and looked down at him asleep in bed. He’s in much better shape than me. Except for that tumor in his brain. T started having headaches last December. He went for a scan. The tumor showed up. They operated. It cost him much of his vision. The tumor spread.
Now, two months later, he was dying. And instead of planning for their fun years together, his wife was planning his funeral.
I visited T and his wife three times before he died last week. Each time, his wife asked me if I’d say a prayer. I’m never quite sure of what to say at such times – who is, right? So I held her hand as she put her other hand on T’s shaved head, and we just said thank you to the Giver of Life for giving us this time with T.
And then I’d head out the door, look up and say a different prayer: “Really? What the hell kind of railroad are you running here?”
In those times, I try to step back and see the big picture and get reassurance. But part of me still wants to throw up my hands and ask: What’s this all about? It gets you to wondering about life, God, what comes next. And the answers seem as clear as the mud-soaked water flowing down the Ohio River right now.
There are times when I go to bed and all of the things I’ve conveniently used to distract myself – social media, socializing, reading, jogging – are out of the way. The troubling questions start to speak up. It’s tough to fall asleep, or to get back to sleep when you wake up at 3 a.m. to pee. I remind myself that I just have to trust, but on those nights trust and faith seem to go only so far.
And then comes morning.
There’s a gorgeous sunrise. The sky goes from infinite black to soothing blue. A half-dozen cardinals perch on the bird feeder in my backyard. The couple across the street plays with their granddaughter in the front yard, laughing the whole time. And I’m reminded of how enormous and amazing all of this us – you, me, life, creation, love, joy, birth, even death – and I sense a divine presence in all of it. And even in my screwy, uncertain life, too.
As Louis Armstrong put it: Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights.
And today, I wish for a do-over. That prayer for T? I might make it something more like:
Thank you, Giver of Life, for all this life. For all of it: The confusion, the disappointment, the joy, the gut-wrenching surprise on a brain scan, the love that gets us through what comes next. Thank you so much! Help us to take it all in as best we can and feel gratitude for this holy day, the most precious thing that any of us ever receives.
Thank you for T and the blessing he was in all of our lives, even those of us who only met him three times as he slept. Even now, he continues to bless us.
And help us to help each other get through this. Remind us that you’re right here with us in each sacred moment. We’re never alone, not any of us. And please give us the faith and the courage to live each day boldly and kindly and fully, right up to the day when we trade our heartbeat for a deeper place in your heart which is love.