As exciting as it is to spend time with and help hospice patients, the one inevitable thing you are signing up for is that eventually they will move on from this world. After going thru over half a dozen such patients transitioning in the last nine months that I have been working with hospices, you would think that I would be used to it. And yet, the hard truth is that you never get used to it. Each and every one of them hits you and hits you true. No amount of reminding yourself everyday of the finiteness of life ever prepares you to deal with it when the end actually presents itself.
I was in California earlier this week. After the meetings, I noticed that there was a mail in my box titled “Mr. Forrester” (name changed). I quickly opened it and read that he was “declining”. “Declining” in hospice speak means you are now transitioning. It is a matter of hours or at best a couple of days. I responded quickly that I had seen him the previous Thursday and will swing by moment I was back in Atlanta.
I should not have bothered about it. For five emails later, there was another email informing me that I was not going to get a chance to see him again.
The flight back seemed much longer than it really was. I was given charge of Mr. Forrester about three months back. Towards the beginning, he was able to speak somewhat coherently. I had read up on his case study. He was a Colonel by rank who had seen active duty for some time. One day, I had visited him when his daughter was there too. She had sat me down and told many a story of her dad.
I knew that he was deteriorating rapidly. He could barely talk. Whatever little he did, he was completely incoherent. The last day when I saw him, he was constantly drooling and could barely lift his head. He lifted it once and cracked a smile. It was mostly quiet time with me asking him gently about small stuff and he taking quite some time before nodding to indicate yes or no.
This picture is from a few weeks back (he is the one closest to you). That was the best spirits I had seen him in. We had some very old songs put on the TV (you will be amazed what Spotify can do !!). Many of the patients like him seem to get energized – some – like him – even tried to sing along.
The hard part of getting to know each one of them and their life story is realizing that you will not see them again. I will still go to the hospice and meet others but he won’t be there. I will, by habit, poke my head into his room and realize that somebody else is there. I will probably go in and talk to the new patient too (I do not have to confine my time only to those that have been assigned to me). But it would not be Mr. Forrester.
Sometimes those long hours with somebody like Mr. Forrester where you are essentially having one way conversations among bouts of awkward silence can be trying. And then you realize in times like this – that was so much better than now – when you do not even have him to go sit next to.
And yet, that is by design. If you accept life, you have to accept death. Presence can be defined only in the context of absence. A journey eventually will end in its destination.
One just hopes that in those walks pushing him in the wheelchair in the yard, in those helping with Kleenex to clean the drool, in those squeezing of his hands before leaving, in those putting a blanket on him when his hands got cold, in those feeding him with the afternoon snacks… somewhere, somehow, one made the journey a wee bit easier…