From the moment we are conceived, we are celebrated. Our community wraps us tightly in a blanket of love before we are even born. Baby showers sprinkle love dust over our mother. And after we are born, the weft and weave of our community becomes stronger. On our first birthday, pictures are taken of our frosting-laden face. Each milestone is honored, from getting a tooth to losing a tooth, from starting kindergarten to graduating from high school and then college, from getting a job to getting a promotion to retirement. We celebrate engagements, weddings, and anniversaries. We even honor each other at death by memorializing our loved ones. As a people, we actually put a lot of energy into supporting each other. And why not? Life is worth celebrating. But there’s one hole that I see, a time that many of us avoid, turn our heads, resist. And that is the time before death when people lose their physical function or their mind—sometimes both—as they make the transition from being a sentient being. As the fabric of their life starts to unravel, for some, the fabric of their community does, too.
When I first met my hospice patient, I was nervous. I had little experience spending time with someone who was on their “death bed.” What do I say? How do I act? I wondered before I walked in her door, with a twinge of fear prickling my gut. Suddenly the 32 hours of hospice training seemed insignificant and hollow. I felt totally unprepared. What can I possibly give this woman who knows her death is imminent?
I had been told that due to my patient’s medical condition, she couldn’t talk much without getting fatigued. Though she lived alone, she had people paid to come in and cook and clean for her. So what was I to do with her if I couldn’t cook, clean or talk much?
I was pleasantly surprised to find a lovely woman sitting in her easy chair. She reached out her paper-thin-skinned hand to me as a gesture of welcome. As we talked and got to know each other a little bit, her voice trailed off from fatigue. Her eyelids drooped and I could tell our conversation was draining her energy.
It was a hot summer evening and she was wearing a pair of sandal slippers, so I caught sight of her well- trimmed toesnails, painted a lovely burgundy. This is a woman who had class. She still tended to small details in her life like her toes.
On my second visit, I knew I could do one of two things. I could talk a lot about my life which would at some point bore the hell out of her, or I could offer to rub her feet. I tentatively asked her if she wanted a foot rub. I wasn’t sure if I was forging into territory that was too intimate for our budding friendship.
Her eyes widened in surprise and delight. “Really?” she asked. She didn’t hesitate beyond that, she just told me how to re-arrange the furniture so I could clear a spot on the floor near her feet to sit.
This has become our ritual. Even when she moved into a nursing home, I come to give her touch. Sadly, her once beautifully thin, soft, non-calloused feet have become swollen beyond belief. I cannot rub her feet anymore; she can only tolerate feather light touch.
She occasionally complains and whines about the nursing home. I don’t act like I can fix anything. I don’t offer to help because that’s not my role. Believe me, I want to. I want to make her life happy and problem-free. Instead, as I sit and give her touch, I know what my role is. I am there to bear witness to her journey, not dictate where she goes. I am there even when I don’t know what to say. I am there so she knows that her life has value and meaning.
This is an exchange, make no mistake about it. I sit and give the gift of touch and she receives. But her receiving is a gift to me. In it, she allows me to express my compassion, be in the moment, and sit in this place that comes to most of us—that place of transition. I am allowed to celebrate her life, not with balloons, cakes or parties, but in quiet meditation, grateful for that exquisite, simple moment of being alive.
What about you? What do you resist? How do you turn your heart from a stranger or a loved one? Hospice isn’t for everyone, but is there another way you can turn to another with love when you would normally turn away with trepidation or fear?